The 1964 Crater Reenactment That Wasn’t

I haven’t commented in quite some time on my on-going Crater manuscript. The project is close to completion as I am trying to knock out the last chapter which covers the period from roughly 1940 to the present.  By 1940 the Crater – now under supervision by the National Park Service –  was being interpreted as it had been going back to the turn of the century.  The broad outline of the battle focused on strictly military aspects of the battle, including the role of Mahone and his Virginia brigade.  Apart from references to Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade which bore the brunt of the initial explosion other Confederate units were only being briefly referenced.  More importantly, the presence of United States Colored Troops was almost entirely ignored as well as the broader issues of race and emancipation, which by this time had been supplanted by themes of national reunion and reconciliation.  All of this was reinforced in the public eye as a result of two well-attended reenactments that took place on the battlefield in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. [I’ve placed a number of related articles on my website, including most recently, "The Battle of the Crater, National Reunion, and the Creation of the Petersburg National Military Park: 1864-1937" which appeared recently in the Virginia Social Science Journal (2005): 13-27.]

Between 1940 and 1960 the Park Service worked to improve access to the Crater and to provide interpretive markers as well as a recorded narrative that would outline the battle as visitors walked the grounds.  High-ranking military officers such as Dwight D. Eisenhower as well as others from such countries as Germany, England, and France walked the battlefield during the postwar years.  Very few African Americans visited Petersburg or any other Civil War battlefield during this period.  By the mid-twentieth century the purging of any reference to emancipation and black participation in the war had been completed.  More importantly, Jim Crow legislation had not only divided the races into separate schools, it kept African Americans from challenging a battle narrative that was geared to whites only.  Federal institutions such as the National Park Service was staffed by whites and the interpretation of the battle that was inherited from the turn of the century was defined by an agenda set by white Southerners or by a shared set of values among white Americans generally that promoted nationalism. 

The challenge to this agenda began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued into the 1970’s.  Without going into too much detail, by challenging the racial hierarchy of much of the country African Americans began the long process of becoming more involved in state and national politics which in turn presented a challenge to the way the public remembered its past.  More immediate to the 1960’s, however, the Civil Rights Movement interrupted white America’s celebration of the Civil War Centennial.  While events in 1961 such as the reenactment of First Manassas proved successful, by 1963 interest was waning.  I need to do more research on what was going on in Petersburg as community leaders began planning a reenactment to commemorate the Crater in late 1963- early 1964.  What I do know is that plans were scrapped and in its place a simple stone marker was unveiled on the battlefield in a quiet ceremony on July 30, 1964.

The most sustained challenge to the way the Crater was being interpreted took place in the 1970’s.  Not until the 1970’s did blacks command sufficient political power necessary to demand a more inclusive historical memory of the South. In 1978 a research team from Howard University led by Joseph E. Harris issued a report on the status of both black soldiers and slaves in the Park’s interpretive guides and other programs. Not surprisingly, the committee recommended substantial additions from the acknowledgment of individual black regiments to the addition of reading material for tourists to the hiring of black interpreters. Consultation with interpreters revealed that “little information was presented concerning black personnel since few visitors are aware of their services during the battles.” And when told that upon request information was made available it “was never stated what information was given to the visitors.” Black students at Virginia State University who were interviewed considered the primary function of the PNMP to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The teams final report “recommended that park officials not only incorporate the achievement of black personnel in their capacities as soldiers and laborers but that personnel are trained to present details concerning the black presence in greater Petersburg.”

I am going to bring the story up to the present with a discussion of Cold Mountain and the possibilities of interpretive revisions given the National Park Service’s recent steps to broaden the way its battlefields are interpreted

This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Museum: A Review of the ACW Museum At Tredegar

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond.  The museum’s debut was last weekend and the reviews thus far have been generally positive.  I spent about three hours and had a chance to take everything in, including all three movies that define three distinct spaces: the cause of the war, the war on the home front, and the war’s legacy.  Throughout the exhibit area the visitor is introduced to three interpretations which follow how the war was interpreted by the Union, Confederacy, and African-Americans. 

Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretation of the Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting.  The list of historical advisers clearly exercised a great deal of influence over the content of the films as well as the narrative that accompanies each artifact and other technical exhibits.  What we have is an interpretation that anyone familiar with recent trends in Civil War historiography will easily recognize.  This makes for an exhibit that is challenging as visitors are forced to draw certain distinctions and perspectives that are not readily familiar.  The first section of the exhibit which focuses on the history of the nations from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to Lincoln’s election includes an excellent video which explores the role of slavery.  At the beginning viewers are asked to vote on the cause of the war by pressing one of four buttons on the seat’s armrest.  The choices are: (1) Federal v. States Rights, (2) Economic/Cultural Differences, (3)  Westward Expansion, or (4) Slavery.  Surprisingly slavery came out ahead of the other three.  With the help of three narrators the video explores the first three options by examining how each revolved around slavery.  By the end slavery can be seen in all of its complexity and stands out as the most important issue on the national scene by the mid-1850’s. 

The second section takes you through the first shots and begins the process of exploring the complex relationship between the battlefield, home front, and slavery.  A second video does a fantastic job of explaining the conditions on the ground between the lack of success for Union armies in the East and especially the actions of fugitive slaves as factors that explain Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Slaves are considered as full actors and the Proclamation is explained as a document that was responsible for nothing less than the "transformation of American society."  Again, the interpretation here fits perfectly into recent studies of the war in 1862-63 and Lincoln’s own journey to this important decision.  The narrative tends towards realism and makes it a point to keep the viewer focused on the military necessity behind Lincoln’s decision and the initiative taken by the slaves themselves.  The video also introduces the viewer to the introduction to U.S.C.T.’s who "seized the opportunity to fight" and began the long process of "making America One National for All."

The one film that I had trouble understanding was called, "The War Comes Home: 1863" which attempts to explain – as best one can – the emotional and material price of the war on the home front.  The video is narrated by a generic character who never identifies himself as Northern or Southern, but does a fairly good job imparting an "everyman" image.   The video focuses specifically on 1863 and begins with a brief history of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Vicksburg before connecting these events to the Richmond Bread Riots and the New York City Draft Riots.  These are important events, but the narration and images fail in its attempt to bring the connection to light.  The video ends with coverage of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner, which only complicated things for me further.  If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion: I would have concentrated on one battle or campaign such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg and explored how large-scale conflicts that took place in populated areas impacted the local economy and the population.  In the case of Gettysburg the additional themes of the Army of Northern Virginia’s steps to capture escaped slaves could have been added to the mix.  The jumping from Richmond to New York to Charleston left no time to do justice to this important interpretive strand of the exhibit. 

Overall, the artifacts are clearly explained and also bare the mark of recent scholarship.  One of the best examples of this is the order authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers into Confederate armies in March 1865.  There is no reference to the presence of large numbers of black soldiers; the narrative is limited strictly to the events surrounding the document.  Included are three passages from white Southerners who were clearly troubled by the prospects of black recruitment.  No reputable historian has demonstrated the presence of significant numbers of black Confederates so there is no place for it in this exhibit.  There is a wonderful little space for children which includes some hands on activities that are quite thoughtful.  One activity asks children to think and write about how we communicate with loved ones away at war today and another activity involves deciding what kinds of things should be sent in a basket to soldiers at the front.

The final section of the exhibit concentrates on the legacy of the Civil War.  There is a video that explores elements of the Lost Cause and the gradual displacement of the "emancipationist" interpretation of the war for one that achieved wide exposure and a general consensus.  While Reconstruction is referenced as a time of hope the harsh realities of Jim Crow are not lost on the audience.  However, between a reference to the long march between the "Civil War and Civil Rights" and a wall that is covered with images from the twentieth century, the viewer is left with a sense of optimism that our founding ideals are alive and a more complete appreciation still within reach.  The narrator suggests that to think about the legacy of the war is not just to think about "forts and reenactments, but a better understanding of what the war means."

With so much to praise, however, I do have a few concerns.  First, I found it difficult to follow the military history of the war.  Large maps that track each year of the war were clear reference points, but there was a lack of focus on major battles apart from their connection to the exhibit’s other interpretive strands.  I am especially concerned that this is going to be a problem for visitors who are expecting a heavy dose of battlefield interpretation.  Unfortunately, there are relatively few artifacts to view.  Perhaps this will change, but it does reinforce my earlier point that this is an intellectually demanding museum.  I’ve said it on this blog countless times, most Civil War enthusiasts are not interested in the complex issues related to race, slavery or the home front.  I wonder whether the museum runs the risk of alienating those groups.  Time will tell and I am willing to admit that these concerns may be entirely misplaced. 

On a more serious note I will not be surprised to read that certain groups, especially heritage groups, are not satisfied with the heavy emphasis on race.  At almost every turn the visitor is confronted with videos about race and their volume guarantees that while walking talk of fugitive slaves, emancipation, and U.S.C.T.’s will remain constant companions.  Again, time will tell, but the ongoing opposition to the NPS’s interpretive revisions is a sufficient reason in and of itself to be concerned.  I am pleased to see such a strong emphasis on education and outreach at Tredegar; this should be their focus as young Americans provide the most important vehicle for sharing a broader and more meaningful interpretation of the Civil War.  [I was pleased to learn that my friend Jim Alperston has been awarded the museum’s first annual Samuel L. Gravely award for excellence in teaching the Civil War. Jim is an energetic teacher who includes multiple battlefield and museum visits in his Civil War curriculum.]

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner, I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall quality of the ACW Museum at Tredegar.  The location of the exhibit inside one of the Tredegar buildings is ideal and its proximity to the James River, Belle Isle, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the rest of downtown Richmond makes a trip all the more worthwhile.  I encourage all of you to visit and/or support in any way possible.  Oh….and did I mention that I bought a Lincoln bobblehead in the museum store?

White Guilt In The Classroom

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

One of my students came to class this morning with a look of deep frustration.  When I asked if everything was alright he responded by saying that he felt guilty about being white.  He had just come from his English class where they are reading Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and between that class and history he admitted to feeling a bit defensive about race.  I thought it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the issue as a class and I asked him if he would repeat his comment for the benefit of his fellow students, which he agreed to do.  We are currently working on a fairly detailed packet that takes students through some of the intricacies of the Constitution, but I thought this was clearly more important.

As we began the discussion I was surprised by how many students agreed with this student’s comment.  Some of the students who didn’t necessarily feel guilty did admit to a feeling of defensiveness or shame that this country could have sanctioned or permitted the horrendous acts that defined slavery, which are described so eloquently by Douglass.  For many students this is the first time that their history class has emphasized the importance of race and slavery as a central theme of American history and that can easily bring about a feeling of uneasiness and even a temptation to distance oneself from it.  I gave the students as much time as they needed to share their thoughts in their own language, and I was amazed by how carefully they listened to one another. 

Once they finished I offered to share my own perspective on this issue which the students seemed eager to hear.  I tried to make the point that their difficulties are a result of the way they’ve been taught to interpret American history.  Since most of them admitted to not having learned much about slavery or race before this year I suggested that their broad view of American history was skewed towards seeing freedom as progressively expanding within a white-only community.  Race and slavery represents a kind of external threat to their clean and tidy interpretation; more importantly, that external threat is seen as existing outside the boundaries of American history.  In short, there is an implicit assumption worked into their psychology over the years that white = American and black/slave = "foreign". 

The problem is that they don’t interpret Frederick Douglass’s story or the broader story of black America as an American story.  While it is impossible to deny the horrors of slavery there is a way to see the story of black America before emancipation and after as a story of resilience and courage in the face of the worst possible conditions imaginable.  As we’ve already discussed in class – a point that I reminded them of – was that by the 18th century the slave population through many of the colonies was beginning to increase naturally and families were becoming more stable.  A distinct African-American culture evolved and involved some of the same practices such as marriage along with many of the same hopes and dreams that we take for granted.  And all of this took place in a slave society.  I am not trying to simplify slavery or excuse it, but point out that within the strict confines of slavery people managed to live their lives with a strong sense of meaning attached to it.  Douglass’s story is the quintessential American story as his dreams involved "stealing his body" and escaping from slavery.  You simply can’t get any more American than the slavery to freedom saga. 

There is a mental shift that needs to take place when introducing this material to high school students.  They should not interpret Douglass simply as a black man, but as an American who understood – as have so many – the price and risks involved in attaining basic freedoms.  I am not surprised by their reaction and I am glad that it surfaced so early in the year.  As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I teach in a predominantly white school with students who are financially fairly well off.  I believe that teaching history involves taking ownership of your history and this can be done without the feelings of guilt.  The racial issues that we continue to struggle with are intimately bound up in the past.  If we are to bridge those barriers it seems that a good place to start in challenging our deep rooted assumptions about what it means to study American history should take place in the classroom. 

Review of American Civil War Center

I am planning to drive down tomorrow to Richmond to see the new Civil War museum with my wife.  The few reviews that I’ve read thus far seem to suggest that the museum does in fact offer something entirely different for the Civil War enthusiast and for those that will be introduced to the war for the first time.  Andrew Ferguson’s review of the museum in the Wall Street Journal is worth reading.  Here are a few passages:

"Heritage tourism" has become a moneymaker in states like Virginia. The $13 million center, housed in a restored Civil War-era gun foundry on the banks of the James River, will surely bring in folks from the commonwealth and beyond. But Mr. Wise cradles grander ambitions. He wants to do something here that hasn’t been done adequately in other Civil War museums — to give due credit to the war itself as a war of ideas. 

Anyone who has slogged through contemporary museums will see how radical Mr. Wise’s ambition is. Notwithstanding the success of heritage tourism, these are difficult times for history museums. As attendance flatlines or falls, curators have forced themselves to compete with theme parks and TV for the attention of tourists and locals alike. Many museums are tricked out in an aesthetic borrowed from Best Buy: cavernous spaces jumping with video screens and echoing with disembodied voices from hidden speakers, a riot of sound and color in which the transmission of knowledge takes a secondary role to the task of keeping busloads of schoolchildren entertained, through exhibits that are — charmed words! — "immersive" and "interactive."

Whether we like it or not Wise’s "grander ambitions" may end up being dictated by the all-mighty dollar.  As Ferguson points out, attendance is down at many museums which puts site managers in a position of having to "sex-up" the place.  The relationship between education and entertainment need not necessarily be in conflict as long as Wise and others do not take their focus off of educational programs geared to school kids as well as more knowledgeable visitors.  Last year I spent a few hours at the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia while attending the AHA and I was blown away by the ways in which technology is used.  It is geared to school kids and is both highly entertaining and incredibly informative. The creative use of technology can not only enhance the historical content, but introduce it in a way that is more likely to bring about serious critical reflection following the visit.

The displays are organized around the three main ideas over which — according to Mr. Wise and his historians — the war was fought: "Union," whose preservation inspired the North; "Home," whose defense motivated the Confederacy; and "Liberty," the goal for both North and South but also for the African-American slaves and freedmen.

If the tripartite scheme sounds artificial on the page, it’s seamless in the execution. The center is a model of curatorial taste, judgment and skill. Among Civil War buffs, the emphasis on the African-American experience has caused the most comment, but even more striking is the evenhandedness with which the three perspectives — North, Confederate and African-American — are explained.

I would actually like to see evidence of any concerns surrounding the African-American theme from those who have actually visited the museum.  My hope is that the emphasis on the black experience will in fact bring more African Americans to the museum and to a point where they can appreciate that the Civil War is as much their war as it is the descendants of "Johnny Reb" and "Billy Yank."  In fact, if we ever get to the point where we see the war as the death blow to slavery than the black experience will be indispensable to understanding why. 

That’s it for now.  Hopefully I will have a review of the museum up some time next week.

One Of Those Nice Surprises

One of the benefits of living and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia is the contact with people who have a family connection to the Civil War.  Here at my school we have direct descendants of both Generals Robert Rodes and Stephen Dodson Ramseur.  Although Rodes is notorious owing to the burning of his letters by his wife, I was able to spend a few weeks looking through a large scrapbook that was compiled by his sister during and after the war. 

A couple of days ago one of my students in the Civil War class commented that her family had an ancestor who fought with the Army of Northern Virginia, and would I like to see what they have.  I think it’s safe to say that every serious Civil War historian lives to hear those few words.  It conjures up images of untapped primary source material and the possibility that something truly important may be revealed.  Well, yesterday she brought the material in and while it is not going to shake-up the Civil War community it is a nice find nonetheless.  The packet included the muster and parole papers for Private John Y. Reily of Company K, 16th Mississippi Regiment, Harris’s Brigade.  He was wounded three times during the war at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Drewry’s Bluff before being taken prisoner on April 2, 1865. 

In the 1880’s Reily wrote a wonderful account of the Confederate defense of Fort Gregg outside of Petersburg.  The language is vintage Lost Cause:

Of the 250 men of all arms in the fort, less than fifty lined up as prisoners, and only five of those men unwounded.  Talk of Sebastopol, Thermopylae, and Gettysburg, while all were glorious and sublime, yet their luster is paled when compared with the inconceivable courage displayed in the last bloody defense of Fort Gregg.  The proudest heritage that I can hope to leave to my posterity is that I am a Confederate Veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the immortal Robert E. Lee, and that I was one of the few defenders of Fort Gregg.

In addition to his memoir and papers, Reily left a very short autobiographical account written one year before his death in 1925 and there is a lengthy obituary from a Louisiana newspaper.  I also have a 20-page account of Fort Gregg that Reily’s grandson researched.  All in all a nice find and a worthwhile addition to my own growing collection of primary sources.