Although not directly related to the Civil War, it is safe to say that the war looms large in this documentary. “A Sleight of History” examines the significance of Foster Auditorium, the site of George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The film explores the issue of historical memory in the American South and questions how we memorialize aspects of our past. Marshall Houston and Sarah Melton produced “A Sleight of History” in Spring 2009 as part of the Documenting Justice program at The University of Alabama. Click here for Sarah Melton’s article accompanying the documentary at Southern Spaces.
After Virginia no other state has done more to commemorate the American Civil War than North Carolina. Their state commission has done an excellent job thus far of organizing activities that reflect an incredibly rich and complex past. They are doing their very best to make the war relevant to the state’s diverse population by focusing on a wide range of themes from the military to race to memory. I have a number of friends who are directly involved in the commission’s work and I can say with confidene that they are making an impact on a number of levels.
Even with all the work this group has undertaken it appears that not everyone is satisfied. In fact, there are two Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations taking place in North Carolina. The other one is being called the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial and they even have their own website. The commission is headed by Bernhard Thuersam, who works as a home designer. So, why an alternative commemoration?
I came across this short video today that focuses on a new historical marker on Sherman’s March that was recently unveiled in Savannah, Georgia. For those of you in the classroom who may be pressed for time this video can be used to introduce your students to some of the basic questions surrounding Civil War memory. The video begins with Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society, who introduces the marker and the story behind General William T. Sherman’s meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and twenty African Americans who were asked for their advice about what ought to be done for the newly freed slaves. It then cuts to Mayor Otis Johnson, who reads an account of how the black delegation, including Garrison Frazier responded.
Students can reflect on a number of questions surrounding the connection between race and politics and how the general public remembers its past:
- Why is it important for your community to remember its past?
- What kinds of events are memorialized in your community?
- Do your monuments and other public historic spaces reflect the racial/ethnic profile of your community?
- To what extent does the racial/ethnic profile of local government determine who and what is remembered?
There is an interesting camera angle that shows both the new historical marker and what I assume is a Confederate monument in the background. Remind your students that the overwhelming number of monuments that can be found throughout the South were erected between roughly 1880 and 1940 and at a time when African Americans could not vote or run for office. The dramatic shift in how local communities remember their past has taken place since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and could only happen as a result of increased voting rights for African Americans and their ability to run for public office.
What other questions might be brought up in your classroom?
I just received my author copies of the latest issue of Civil War Times, which should hit newsstands any day now. As you can see Silas Chandler made the cover. I love the fact that he is pictured alone and out from behind the shadow of Andrew Chandler. It’s powerful. Kudos to whoever made this decision. What Myra Chandler Sampson and I tried to do in this short article was tell as much of the story from Silas’s perspective as possible rather than the mythical story that has come to dominate popular memory. That narrative’s treatment of Silas as a loyal slave and/or soldier is little more than a self-serving attempt to ignore or minimize the place of slavery and race in the Confederate war. He has a much more interesting story to tell if we are only willing to listen.
Myra and I want to thank Dana Shoaf and the rest of the editorial staff for their hard work and for their agreeing to take on this manuscript. I have no doubt that their inboxes will be flooded in a matter of weeks. I can already anticipate the reaction. This is my third feature article in CWT in the last year and I have nothing but the highest praise for the work they do. Finally, congratulations to Civil War Times on this their 50th anniversary. Included in this issue are articles by Harold Holzer, Scott Patchan, and Jacqueline G. Campbell. They also published an essay by Glenn Tucker on James Longstreet that originally appeared in their very first issue, which I think is a great idea.
Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past. We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible. Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us. I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).
As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals. Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860. It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction. It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole. In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.