“The Good Death”

This year I am working with a student on an independent study that focuses on how the war effected soldiers’ conception of death during the Civil War.  We are looking specifically at the war in Virginia during 1864.  Over the summer this student read This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage Civil War Library) and we are currently reading Jason Phillips’s Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, both of which I’ve read already read and highly recommend.  Beginning next trimester this student will shift to the Special Collections Department at UVA to look at archival sources.

This is the latest installment of the Museum of the Confederacy’s video series and it focuses specifically on death in the Civil War.

Commemorating the Sesquicentennial in Brunswick County, Virginia

Last night I took part in a community forum on the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Waite Rawls, III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.  The event took place in Alberta at the Southside Virginia Community College and was organized by Brunswick County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  For about 1 hour, and in front of a racially-mixed audience numbering around 100, we discussed the reasons for and importance of commemorating the sesquicentennial.  It was a lively discussion and it was truly an honor to be asked to join this roundtable.  I have nothing but the highest admiration for the work that Christy and Waite do at their respective institutions on a daily basis.  The challenges they face are numerous, but they proceed with the full understanding that their work matters.  I could listen to Christy talk about public history all night long.

Each of us had an opportunity to make an opening statement, which I used to discuss my work in the classroom and how I’ve tried to integrate the sesquicentennial into some of my lessons.  I talked about readings, class discussions, and my annual trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  The audience was given plenty of time to ask questions and they did not disappoint.  I was singled out early on in the discussion by a group, whose questions were entertaining if not predictable.  One individual asked where I was born followed by some rather odd questions about my teaching style.  My personal favorite was a question that asked if I teach my students that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart were great men.  I usually don’t respond to the place of birth question, but I successfully diffused it by pointing out that I am from southern New Jersey.  The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth.  As to the importance of Lee and the rest of the gang I simply noted that as a history teacher it is not my responsibility to tell them what to believe about any historic figure.  My job is to provide my students with the analytical skills to draw their own conclusions.  Some of these same people suspect that I am corrupting my students by teaching them to “hate the South” and yet they have no problem telling me how I should influence what my students believe about the Civil War. Continue reading “Commemorating the Sesquicentennial in Brunswick County, Virginia”

Black Confederates on Countdown

I want to say up front that I am not a fan of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show. I find him to be utterly uninteresting and, in the end, a great example of what is wrong with mainstream media.  Like most other “news” shows it’s a place to go to affirm and feel good about what you already believe.  That said, Olbermann handled this story responsibly by sticking to the central issue at hand, which is the veracity of the claim about the role of southern blacks in the Confederate army.  I anticipated an interview with a Roland Martin-type, but Olbermann managed to get William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, who broke this story and who herself is the author of an excellent Civil War study.  Sheriff also managed to highlight the other big problem with all of this and that is that most people do not know how to navigate the Internet.

This narrative is now on the public’s radar screen.  There will be the inevitable responses from certain quarters that a way of life is being attacked or that revisionist historians and Political Correctness have run amok, but this is nothing more than a sign of desperation and a reflection of intellectual bankruptcy.

Black Confederates on the Retreat?

I think it’s safe to say that all of us were disappointed by the news in the Washington Post today about the fourth grade textbook that includes a reference to thousands of slaves serving as soldiers in Confederate ranks.  A broader look at Virginia textbooks on the history of slavery may push us further down the road of disillusionment.  Consider Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, which was used in Virginia schools through the late 1970s.  Here is an excerpt and accompanying image from the chapter on slavery:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

That’s as bad as it gets, but today is a day to be optimistic about the future. [For those of you interested in the decision on the part of Virginia’s state legislature to rewrite history textbooks in response to the Civil Rights Movement, see Adam W. Dean’s recent essay in the VMHB.] It’s almost impossible to imagine the swift correction that we witnessed today in a prominent newspaper in response to the above text and image during its tenure in Virginia’s classrooms.  In fact, today was quite encouraging. Continue reading “Black Confederates on the Retreat?”

Black Confederates In Virginia Textbooks

Many of you wonder why I am so focused and committed to challenging the mythology of black Confederates.  In recent weeks I’ve written about the sale of toy soldiers at the Museum of the Confederacy, a brief reference in a NPS handout in New York City, and, of course, the anticipated release of Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Weeks’s Entangled in Freedom. I hope this story puts to rest any doubt as to why it is important that we remain vigilant.  This narrative will only become more prominent over the next few years during the sesquicentennial.  I am posting this story in its entirety from the Washington Post.  Thanks to William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, for pointing out this problem and to Kevin Sieff for writing such a thorough article.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history. Virginia education officials, after being told by The Washington Post of the issues related to the textbook, said that the vetting of the book was flawed and that they will contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage.

“Just because a book is approved doesn’t mean the Department of Education endorses every sentence,” said spokesman Charles Pyle. He also called the book’s assertion about black Confederate soldiers “outside mainstream Civil War scholarship.” Continue reading “Black Confederates In Virginia Textbooks”