It looks like next year I will once again be teaching my Civil War Memory course. I’ve already begun to think about readings as well as class visits to Boston. The class was very popular in Virginia and I especially enjoyed our tours of Richmond, including Monument Avenue, Hollywood Cemetery and Tredegar. At this point I am hoping to organize two separate day trips.
We shall see whether it is possible to fit in two separate trips. Either way, these are the places that I hope to have students think about in connection to the memory of emancipation and Union, the role of the citizen soldier in the war, and especially the remembrance of death and sacrifice. Feel free to suggest additional sites.
Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
Just wrapped up another productive week at the Massachusetts Historical Society with collections related to the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. There is something to researching real black Civil War soldiers as opposed to deconstructing silly claims about fictitious black Confederate soldiers. The MHS has an impressive collection of correspondence among the unit’s officers. In addition, I now have access to a number of black newspapers through a deal with Accessible Archives. They include a large number of letters written by enlisted men and officers from black regiments, including the 55th. I still haven’t decided what I plan on doing with this research beyond writing a couple of articles. There is definitely a book in all of this, but we will have to see if I am the one who will write it.
I am coming to you from a cafe in downtown Boston as I make my way over to the North End for dinner. Rather than take the train I decided to walk it, which was really just an excuse to spend some time at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. This was the first time I noticed that the line of men extends behind Shaw’s horse, which you can see in this photo.
Man, I love this city.
Here is an interesting story from my neck of the woods. The Worcester Grand Army of the Republic Board of Trustees voted recently to return three captured Confederate flags to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, N.C. The flags were captured at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina on March 14, 1862, by two Union divisions manned with residents of Central Massachusetts. This latest story follows a much longer trend of reconciliation gestures between the descendants of Civil War veterans. [I will be speaking at the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable on October 11.]
This past Friday I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Framingham History Center located in the Edgell Memorial Library, which was built after the war to honor Union veterans. The center’s director, Annie Murphy, was kind enough to give me a personal tour of their new Civil War exhibit. It’s not the most elaborate exhibit around, but they do a nice job of highlighting was is clearly an extensive collection of artifacts and documents. It includes General George H. Gordon’s coat, a buts of the general sculpted by Daniel Chester French and a battle worn flag of the 13th Massachusetts. If you are in the area you should make it a point to check it out.
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A few of my readers have requested that I comment on ongoing and recent exhibits in my new neck of the woods that concentrate on the history of slavery and the slave trade. I assume they are planning family vacations north of the Mason-Dixon Line so I am more than happy to comply. Their requests, however, seem to be couched in the assumption that historical institutions in New England and elsewhere are actively ignoring this dark and complex subject in American history. Nothing could be further from the truth so I hope this short post will alleviate their concerns and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for an exciting and educational trip north.
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One of the things that I hope my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory does is find a place in a growing literature that challenges the reunion and reconciliation school of Civil War Memory. It’s beautifully expressed by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memoryand suggests that white northerners and southerners eventually brushed aside a memory of emancipation for one that embraced a shared history as well as a set of values that allowed for a swift and relatively painless sectional reconciliation. There is a certain amount of truth to this story. The story of the Crater, however, simply does not follow this broad narrative outline. The veterans of the Virginia brigade engaged in bitter feuds relating to the battle and the role of William Mahone during the few short years of Readjuster control. Mahone learned that there were limits to which he could utilize his military career to advance a political agenda that advanced the cause of the state’s black population. And while numerous meetings between former enemies took place on the battlefield, white southerners never adopted a language of reconciliation when commemorating the battle. This was a decisive Confederate victory that highlighted the fighting prowess and character of their own. The presence of a black division was simply too much for many of the veterans to forget even at the beginning of the twentieth century.
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