It is one of the most unusual memorials on any Civil War commemorative landscape North or South. I vividly recall my own loss for words during my first trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2011. It is a stop at the top of my list for next year’s Civil War Memory class and thanks to Joy M. Giguere’s essay in the March 2013 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era I now have a bit more interpretive ammo under my belt. Continue reading “Interpreting Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Sphinx”
One of my responsibilities at the upcoming Future of Civil War History Conference at Gettysburg College is to moderate a panel on interpreting USCTs at historical sites. Panelists include Barbara Gannon, Emmanuel Dabney, Hari Jones, Joseph McGill, Jill Newmark, and Robert Sutton. The presenters have already submitted short essays on various issues that they believe are important to discuss. I’ve pretty much finished reading through them and am in the process of identifying challenges associated with the interpretation of USCTs as a point of departure for further discussion. Many of the papers reference the influence of the movie Glory on popular perception as well how we interpret the massacre of black soldiers on battlefields such as Fort Pillow and at the Crater. While I am particularly interested in how we frame the massacre of black soldiers the question of how we address instances where black soldiers executed Confederates has not been adequately addressed. Consider the following passage written by Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney who does address this with visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield.
One of the ironies I discuss with visitors is that the US Colored Troops capture Confederate earthworks which were primarily dug by slaves and free blacks. In discussing the troops assaulting these works, I read directly from a letter written by Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops. Turner stated that the Black troops and the “the rebels were both crying out – ‘Fort Pillow!’ This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides.” He wrote of the men assaulting the position and the Confederates retreating which he humorously wrote that the Southerners went “out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind.” Immediately, he makes a powerful summary of how Confederate prisoners were treated as he penned, “Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.” I tell our audiences that while Chaplain Turner did not condone killing of Confederate prisoners it was done in retaliation to the Southern Congress’ May 1, 1863 legislation which stated that Black men found in the Union army’s ranks were slaves in insurrection and that the white officers leading them were inciting a servile insurrection. In both cases the Confederate legislators and the war department condoned the execution of USCTs as well as their white officers. I note that according to white Union soldiers, some of them that night stopped more Black troops from killing Confederate prisoners.
I suspect that these are very difficult stories for visitors to digest. They certainly don’t fit the overall narrative of those who have been influenced by the movie Glory as well as the Sesquicentennial’s emphasis on emancipation and the sacrifice of black soldiers. In this narrative battlefield massacres are central to a story of African American sacrifice for the Union and the eventual attainment of civil rights. Whether intentional or not our embrace of emancipation as the central theme of the Civil War affords black soldiers what might be described as a kind of moral immunity.
When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom and in those unfortunate moments when they are executed they are victims of an uncontrollable rage that has its roots in a society committed to maintaining slavery and white supremacy. How should we characterize incidents of black soldiers executing Confederates? I agree with Emmanuel that part of the explanation must reference legislation from the Confederate Congress, but that doesn’t constitute everything that we can learn from accounts such as the one cited above.
We have little difficulty coming to terms with white Union and Confederate rage on the battlefield and how it sometimes led to acts that fell beyond the rules of war. But what happens when the conduct of blacks on the battlefield takes a turn, however slight, toward something that resembles Nat Turner’s Rebellion? More to the point, what do we gain from looking more closely at these accounts when interacting with the general public and/or in the classroom and what are the risks involved?
Jon Carson does a wonderful job of responding to the recent flurry of White House Petitions requesting that individual states be given the right to secede from the Union.
Thank you for using the White House’s online petitions platform to participate in your government.
That sentence alone defuses any credibility that these silly petitions might enjoy. There is just a little irony in Americans utilizing their Constitutional rights through a website that encourages participatory democracy and that is maintained by taxpayer dollars.
But just in case you slept through your American history and civics classes Carson follows up with a reminder that the sacrifice paid by Americans during the Civil War and beyond guarantees your right to petition your government.
Our founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States “in order to form a more perfect union” through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. They enshrined in that document the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot — a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it. As President Abraham Lincoln explained in his first inaugural address in 1861, “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” In the years that followed, more than 600,000 Americans died in a long and bloody civil war that vindicated the principle that the Constitution establishes a permanent union between the States. And shortly after the Civil War ended, the Supreme Court confirmed that “[t]he Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States.”
It’s almost as good as the White House response to the Death Star petition.
I’ve met some incredible history teachers over the years through this blog. A few of them have taught me as much as I hope this blog has helped their own classroom practices – none more so than Chris Lese, who teaches history at Marquette University High School. Chris is a passionate and talented teacher. Like me, he has the luxury of teaching a course on the Civil War. In fact, earlier this year I Skyped with his class. Later this morning we are going to connect online once again.
This year Chris’s class is hoping to do a little Civil War preservation in their local community. The class will create a tin plated QR Code memorial to be placed next to a forgotten bronze plaque in the woods of a Milwaukee public park. The memorial is dedicated to to Col. Jerome A. Watrous, who served in the Iron Brigade.
The first phase of the project is to focus on the memory of Civil War both during the early 20th century (this bronze plaque was dedicated in 1939) and today. Here are a few of the questions the students sent along.
- What are some reasons people in the early 20th century dedicated monuments, plaques and memorials to Civil War soldiers?
- What sort of issues were veterans facing during the early 20th century?
- Did Civil War soldiers experience wide spread support across society? Who put up these memorials?
- Why do you think it is important for younger generations to know about/remember Civil War history?
- In this techno-crazy society that looks to get more and more digital, will memorials have to be digital
to persuade future people to care? Will stone and bronze monuments still have a major place remembering history?
- What role does technology have in historical memory?
The next phase includes researching the life of Watrous and the monument itself and attempt to determine why it was apparently forgotten. The class is also consulting with local Iron Brigade historian Lance Herdegen and the Kenosha Civil War Museum. Herdegen just published a new book on the Iron brigade titled, THE IRON BRIGADE IN CIVIL WAR AND MEMORY: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter.
This is a great way to get kids not only interested in history, but in historical memory, and historical preservation. It warms my heart.
A number of people have pointed out at various places that Death and the Civil War spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on northern soldiers and their communities. A few people have argued that this was done intentionally and to the detriment of the Confederacy and to those who are dedicated to keep its memory alive. It goes without saying that this was not their goal.
While I think it’s a fair observation I have to wonder whether it extends beyond the relatively small community of Civil War enthusiasts. In other words, I wonder whether the average viewer picked up on this. Here is a bit from Executive Producer Mark Samels on what this film is about:
Death and the Civil War is really about things that we take for granted and how they came to be. We take for granted that there are national cemeteries for our soldiers who have fallen in war; we take for granted that we’re going to honor those soldiers, and that we’re going to bring them back no matter how much effort has to go into bringing them back.
It’s a story about how individuals, from the bottom up, really addressed this cataclysmic event; how they struggled even just to name the soldiers who were being killed in the battlefields; how they struggled to get them back to their families, get them properly identified, get them buried. And underlying all of this is a conception of what death actually meant in the nineteenth century to Americans. And it’s different than today.
Ultimately, the film attempts to transcend Union and Confederate altogether to speak to an audience that self-identifies as citizens of the United States. The demographic that likely viewed this film has experienced WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the war in Afghanistan. The sacrifice of so many brave men and women in the course of these wars and how we remember them fits into a broader history that extends back to a United States at war with itself in the 1860s. It’s Lincoln’s words that continue to give meaning to the sacrifice of the Civil War dead and every war since and it is in national cemeteries, established by the United States government, where we are expected to reflect on that sacrifice. From this perspective the whole question of balance between Union and Confederate or North and South misses the point entirely.
The gathering and memorialization of Confederate dead is acknowledged toward the end of the film as part of the historical narrative, but we are not being asked to reflect on their meaning as citizens of a Confederate States of America. Ultimately, this film is about the men who died in an attempt to preserve our United States as well as the obligations that this government and each of us incurred as a result.