Another image that I am hoping to use in my forthcoming book about the Crater and historical memory is the August 1968 cover of Ebony. I went through the entire run of Ebony and Jet magazines during the course of my research in an effort to better understand how African Americans remembered black Union soldiers through the Civil War Centennial. I was not disappointed. The coverage was extensive and included a number of well written essays by academic historians, including John Hope Franklin and the popular historian, Lerone Bennett, who is best known for is book on Lincoln and emancipation. I found a few essays that referenced the Crater, but the battle clearly did not stand out for African Americans in the 1960s. That’s not surprising given that more extensive coverage would have forced writers to deal with the additional problem of how to handle the massacre of large numbers of black soldiers following the battle. Such a narrative would have run counter to the strong desire among authors to tell a heroic battlefield story.
This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse. I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate. To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this. That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.
As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context. Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence. Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:
This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.
First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy. We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology. That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture. As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally. We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided. As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.
I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s. Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war. Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this? I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well. Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.
I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”
The following announcement appeared yesterday on H-NET. Here is a link to the pdf: http://www.nps.gov/ulsg/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=202422 This is a great opportunity for students and teachers to integrate the study of Civil War memory into their history classes as well as careful consideration of their own responsibilities as Americans to continue the work of those who came before.
A NATIONAL DIGITAL HISTORY PROJECT FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
The coming year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of president-elect Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC and the presidency of a nation on the eve of civil war. Inspired by that anniversary, the National Park Service invites high schools classes to join in a national digital project on the broader theme of inaugurations – new beginnings.
The National Park Service invites students to create short digital narratives on one of three themes:
- My area in 1861 – using maps, photos, illustrations, census data, telling incidents from local newspapers, and (if available) national parks materials – students will create a portrait of where they live as it was just before Lincoln set off to Washington.
- A civil rights hero from my area one hundred years later, in 1961, — by seeking out and interviewing a veteran of the struggle for equal rights, or finding existing oral histories, and/or maps, photos, illustrations, census data, and local news stories and national parks materials, students will tell the story of someone in their area who brought about change in the 1960s.
- The road ahead – students will define the changes they intend to inaugurate in their adult lives.
Narratives will be gathered from schools throughout the nation and placed on a special National Park Service website. Participating students, their communities, and a broad national parks audience of all ages will then be able to use the site as window into key moments in our national life, as they were experienced locally, and as a virtual memorial for the momentous journey upon which President Lincoln embarked 150 years ago.
This project was developed by Dr. Marc Aronson in cooperation with Charles Forcey of Historicus, Inc. In the fall of 2010, the project team will provide a kit on the three themes, primary source samples and suggests, as well as links to Common Core Standards. Materials will be submitted through online forms; technical and editorial support will be available all along the way. A suite of digital resources taken from the National Park Service and Library of Congress sources will be available for all participating schools.
Answers from left to right: No / Yes / Perhaps