Next week I head down to Charleston, South Carolina for the Civil War Trust’s annual teachers institute. This is my third year working with CWT and it’s always a rewarding experience. My talk is on the history of Civil War monuments and how they can be integrated into the classroom. As a preface to my talk I need to introduce the concept of collective memory. Here are a few points from Michael Kammen’s seminal study, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, that I hope will help to get the ball rolling.
If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance?
1. That public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes.
2. That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past.
3. That the past may be mobilized to serve partisan purposes.
4. That the past is commercialized for the sake of tourism and related enterprises.
5. That invocations of the past (as tradition) may occur as a means of resisting change or of achieving innovations.
6. That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.
7. That the past and its sustaining evidence may give pleasure for purely aesthetic and non-utilitiarian reasons.
8. And finally, that individuals and small groups who are strongly tradition-oriented commonly seek to stimulate a shared sense of the past within their region.
From Charleston it’s back to Gettysburg for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Educator’s Conference, which is organized by the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation. I get to talk about digital media literacy, but the highlight for me will be my talk on teaching the movie Glory in the Majestic Theatre. It should be a lot of fun.
Today I completed a rough draft of an essay on John Christopher Winsmith and his servant Spencer for the NYTs Disunion column. Winsmith’s letters are incredibly rich and help to sketch a constantly evolving master – slave dynamic during the first sixteen months of the war. As a teaser consider the following reference to Spencer accompanying Winsmith on picket duty in northern Virginia in September 1861:
I took Spencer along to carry my knapsack [etc], and Ralph and I with him stopped at a house on the road, and drying ourselves thoroughly had a most delightful rest. Sunday just after daylight we left and joined to Regt. Then we proceeded to Upton’s Hill in sight of Munsin’s to do picket duty. The enemys lines are not so near the former as the latter place, and therefore our men got no shots at the Yankees. The view was fine, and just such as I have described in a former letter as having enjoyed from Munsin’s. Occasionally in the distance we could see the Yankees moving about, but no fight occurred during our stay.
This is the only time that Winsmith acknowledges this role in his letters, though I suspect it was quite common among officers at least during the early stages of the war. One wonders how many of these Yankee sightings of black men in Confederate ranks were of this nature.
Head on over to Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates site for an excellent post on the pensions that were handed out to former servants/slaves at the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of this subject. It looks like the recent decision in Union County North Carolina to recognize former slaves as if they occupied a position akin to a soldier was premised on their having been granted pensions. Do yourself a favor and read Andy’s post.
Finally, today I got a call from Ken Wyatt, who is the director of Colored Confederates: Myth or Matter of Fact? I was interviewed as a talking head back in 2009. It’s been shown at a number of film festivals, but other than a preview I have yet to see it. Fortunately, it is being shown this weekend as part of the Roxbury International Film Festival here in Boston on Sunday at noon. I am looking forward to commentary by H.K. Edgerton that goes way off the deep end.
I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population. [I've followed this story for quite some time.] Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy. The history will be distorted.
This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered. The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life. This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights. It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.
These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record. They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery. We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel. How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones? How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?
On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs. The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status. They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom. Quite the opposite. Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers. Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861. Separation from families was anything but new for these men.
And yet these men survived. They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.
Yes, we should honor these men. Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.
Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.
I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject. Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation. [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.
So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.
On the one hand I agree with much of this. Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy. At best, they are echoes of the lost cause. I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.
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Having a great time here in Milwaukee at the OAH/NCPH. I just finished participating in a lively roundtable discussion on the Civil War 150th. The participants covered a wide swath of the education and public history field and the topics ranged from how to engage the general public to shaping content on the Internet. Tomorrow morning I am giving a talk on teaching Civil War movies, which should be a lot of fun.
Between all the excitement I wanted to pass on my review of Glenn David Brasher’s new book,The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom that appeared today in the Atlantic.