A Better Slavery Map

I didn’t realize that yesterday I stumbled on a relatively unknown map.  Hope it comes in handy for those of you in the classroom.  Brooks Simpson also posted the image on his site along with a very colorful explanation of the recent decline in Boston sports.  Thank you, Brooks.  One of the commenters on his site suggested that slavery in the North was insignificant.  I find it to be a widely-held view, especially with my students, who are likely offered a skewed view of slavery’s origin and growth at an earlier age.  My job is to correct it.

I find this map to be particularly helpful.  The first thing that students notice is that slavery was present in all of the thirteen original colonies.  Not only was slavery present in the North, it was expanding along with the South.  In 1680 New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania all contain a roughly equal number of slaves as North and South Carolina.  Of course, slavery expands in the South for a number of reasons having to do with the decline in indentured servants and demand for tobacco and other staple crops, but what is just as important is the rate of expansion in the North.  Twenty-Five years before the American Revolution there was no sign of decline in slavery in the North.  Speaking loosely, slavery was clearly a national institution.

There were, of course, important differences between the lives of slaves between these two regions as well as their place in society that must be noted.  I usually have my students read a short selection from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, in which he distinguishes between “a society with slaves” as opposed to a “slave society.” It’s an incredibly helpful analytical distinction and one that students easily grasp.

I’ve framed this year’s class around the essential question: What is American Freedom?  We are just getting started exploring the origins and evolution of slavery during the colonial period, but overall I’ve been asking them to reflect, based on their understanding of the concept, just how free people were during this time.  This map surely helps in that discussion.

Not quite sure where we should draw “God’s Curse” and “God’s Blessing” on this map.

Death and Dying Without Much Meaning

A few months ago I received a preview copy of American Experience’s Death and the Civil War, which will air on PBS this week.  This weekend I finally had a chance to watch it through, which seems appropriate given that we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.  I am not going to offer a comprehensive overview of the show.  For the most part I enjoyed it even if the Ken/Ric Burns format has become predictable.  The program is based largely on Drew G. Faust’s recent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which I highly recommend.  For an overview of the program check out reviews by Megan Kate Nelson at The Civil War Monitor and Michael Lynch at Past in Present.

The one aspect of the program that I found disappointing was the continued difficulty to acknowledge the ways in which Americans (mainly northerners) came to terms with their dead as part of the sacred work of preserving the Union.  The coverage of how the Civil War challenged the Victorian era idea of a “good death” is captured beautifully through images, words, and music, but just as important to Victorian America was the striving toward connecting that death and suffering to the sacred cause of Union.  American Experience bombards the viewer with the emotional and psychological toll of death, but without much in terms of redemption.  No doubt, I’ve been influenced by having recently read Frances M. Clarke’s War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North.  No other book that I know of more effectively explains how northern stories of suffering and death produced by soldiers on the front as well as on the home front galvanized sectional pride and morale throughout the war.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is a case study of the death and memory of Nathaniel Bowditch, a second lieutenant from Massachusetts, who was killed in 1863.  Nathaniel’s letters home reflect his commitment to the virtues of bravery and selflessness as well as the understanding that his actions and possible death would help to shape a crucial moment in world history.  His letters home, like those of others, would help family members to deal with the pain of loss by acknowledging that it was a meaningful death.  Nathaniel’s death is featured prominently in Death and the Civil War, specifically his father Henry’s difficulty in coming to terms with the loss of his son.  The viewer feels the emotion of Henry’s loss, but not his striving to ensure that it was a heroic death.  All we learn is that Henry eventually authored a manual that promoted the use of ambulances on the battlefield.  What we don’t learn is that almost immediately following his death, Henry sought out Nathaniel’s comrades and superior officers for any information that might assuage his family’s concerns about the way his son died on the battlefield.

Even the beautiful scrapbooks that Henry lovingly created with his son’s letters as well as those sent to him from family members and other mementos are only briefly mentioned at the very end of the program.

The memorials that they created reveal a lurking fear that battlefield deaths might come to be seen as meaningless slaughter, but they also show why such interpretations failed to gain currency at this time.  In this war, heroism held meaning insofar as a soldier displayed an admirable character that reflected well on his family and community.  To become a heroic martyr, officers had to perform conscientiously, suffer physical or emotional torments without undue complaint, exhibit moral conviction and self-control at the point of death, and embody all of those other character traits that represented with worthiness of their family and class backgrounds…. Henry Bowditch purposefully included the family’s letters to show just how much homefront support and prodding went into creating a heroic martyr.  He was proud of that fact.  He wanted to show that they held Nathaniel to a high standard of uncomplaining selflessness while expecting nothing less of themselves.  As the Bowditch parents worked so hard to prove at the moment of their greatest loss, it was both the burden and expression of a truly virtuous elite to model suffering’s inspirational potential. (p. 48)

Perhaps we are far too removed from the Victorian world to truly appreciate what seem to be overly romanticized and sappy acts of memorialization.  The other problem is that we are much too quick to allow Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to bring meaning to it all.  It’s as if Americans were just sitting around waiting for their president to utter those stirring lines and bring some level of comfort and reassurance to their households.  I am not suggesting that it didn’t, but family’s like the Bowditch’s were working to ensure that their dead did not die in vain from the beginning.  The other issue is that we still fall into the trap of seeing the war as void of meaning until emancipation comes on the scene.

Both of these themes come through loud and clear in Death and the Civil War and to that extent limit our understanding of how thousands of families struggled to come to terms with death.

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 09/12

As always thanks for purchasing books and other products through my Amazon Associate account. My commissions come in the form of book credits, which allows me to purchase two or three books for free.

Frances M. Clarke, War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, (Knopf, 2012).

Rebecca (Becky!) Ann Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

D. Scott Hartwig, To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889, (Penguin, 2012).

Louis P. Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Preserving Civil War Memory at Gettysburg College

Calling all digital historians and archivists: If after reading this you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments section.  I will make sure they get passed on to the right people.  Thanks.

Imagine signing on as the Systems and Emerging Technologies Librarian and being told that the library recently purchased two blogs.  For Zach Coble of Gettysburg College the question now is what to do with Civil War Memory and Keith Harris’s Cosmic America.

This is an exciting project for Gettysburg College.  Although the Library of Congress is also archiving this site it’s nice to know that it will made available at Gettysburg as well.  I’ve suggested before that I think we have to begin to shift our understanding of historical memory in the digital/web2.o world.  Blogs and other social media tools have democratized the sharing of history  further than anyone could have imagined just a few short years ago and it also has made it possible for a much wider demographic to share their own understanding of the Civil War and its legacy.  As a result the categories that frame our understanding of the evolution of Civil War memory will need to be revised if not discarded entirely to make sense of the sesquicentennial years.  It is my hope that this site will function as a unique window into the world of Civil War memory at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It looks like they found just the right person to take the lead on this project:.

It’s exciting to explore new forms of scholarship, but we’re not exactly sure what to do with the blogs. Although the blogs are currently active they will not always be, so we must determine how we want to preserve them. Since none of us are experts in digital preservation, we are trying to understand at a conceptual level how best to approach this project.

This initiative has required us to think of larger issues concerning the library’s role in digital curation. Should libraries even try to preserve blogs and other digital content? Are we equipped, in terms of technology and staffing, to take on this kind of work? Can’t we rely on the big names in the field like the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive to take care of this?

As an employee of a cultural institution, I’m biased to believe that libraries (as well as archives, museums, and others) have a responsibility to preserve cultural content as it fits within the mission, goals, and collection development policy of the organization. I also believe that institutions need to take responsibility and work to inform themselves so they can properly care for the digital materials in their own collections.

The agreement that I signed includes other resources (digital and hard copy) as well, but any discussion of that will have to wait until we sort out some of the details.  I will be sure to provide additional updates as this project evolves.

The Future of Civil War History

I am very excited to share what promises to be one of the most educational and entertaining conferences to come down the pike in quite some time.  From March 14-16, 2013 the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College will host a three-day conference titled, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.”  Peter Carmichael somehow managed to wrangle up roughly 100 historians of all stripes for a wide variety of formal presentations, panels, working groups and field experiences.  The goal is to “facilitate discussions between panelists and the audience about how the historical community can make the Civil War past more engaging, more accessible, and more usable to public audiences as we look beyond the 150th commemorations and to the future of Civil War history.”

Please take some time to browse through the conference website.  There are plenty of opportunities to get involved, including a number of very interesting working groups that will commence in preparation for the conference.  I strongly encourage those of you who teach history, work in some capacity in public history or are just deeply interested in the Civil War era to register soon since spaces are limited.

I am super excited for this event.  It’s a chance to spend time in one of my favorite places and best of all I get to participate.  I am a panelist for a session on how to engage museum audiences and students around issues of Civil War memory and I will be chairing another session on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites.

See you in Gettysburg.