This past weekend I took part in a conference on the Civil War and public history at North Carolina State University. I heard a number of interesting presentations and I will likely comment on them over the next few weeks, but for now I want to say a few quick words about one specific point made during the course of the day. A number of the presentations, including my own, addressed issues relating to the continued interpretive divide that still exists between historians and segments of the general public. You can guess which organizations were mentioned at one point or another as examples of this resistance. In response to John Hennessy’s keynote address Peter Carmichael encouraged the audience to “declare victory” in reference to the interpretive wars. He is right. Public historians working in a wide range of historical institutions are now interpreting the war from a much broader perspective that includes the stories of individuals and groups, who have for far too long been left out of our collective memory. The difficult issues such of slavery and race are now being explored from every possible angle. Finally, the recent focus on historical memory has made us all more sensitive to the consequences of being left out of the nation’s collective memory.
I’ve been suggesting something along the lines of a declaration of victory for some time now. The calls of “revisionism” and emotional defenses of “Southern heritage” are little more than a reflection of an intellectual bankruptcy that was always present in many of the more traditional interpretations that tended to focus more on emotional defense as opposed to an analytical understanding of the past. John Hennessy hit the mark in his keynote address when he noted that the Civil War is one of the only places in American history where the personal anecdote is expected to frame the national narrative. You know what this looks like: My great grandfather never owned slaves….
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
Last Friday I spent the afternoon with Gilles Biassette, who writes for La Croix in France. He spent a few days in the United States talking with people about the Civil War Sesquicentennial. We talked about a wide range of topics as we walked through Lee and Jackson Parks, the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia and the campus itself. Gilles asked excellent question and I even had the chance to ask him about historical memory in France. Of course, there is always the concern that a reporter will butcher what I have to say, but I think it turned out really well. It seems appropriate that a French publication would express interest in our Civil War given that Europe closely monitored the events of 1861-65.
Mais cette passion américaine n’est pas que militaire. Comme l’atteste le nouveau musée de Gettysburg.
Ils l’ont refait il y a quelques années, explique Kevin Levin, professeur à Charlottesville et auteur d’un blog très riche sur la guerre de Sécession et sur son héritage, Civil War Memory. Avant, il y avait des murs couverts d’armes, et le reste tournait autour des mouvements de troupes… Maintenant, il n’y a plus qu’un échantillon de la collection d’armes du musée. À la place, une excellente exposition sur l’esclavage, le rôle des femmes, les conditions de vie à l’époque. Ce qui n’a pas plu à tout le monde ! Des gens ont râlé, disant qu’un musée sur une bataille, c’est fait pour parler de la guerre, pas de l’esclavage….
L’image d’un Sud esclavagiste combattant au nom de la liberté a de quoi faire bondir… « Ce type d’argument est repris par ceux qui veulent minorer le problème de l’esclavage, poursuit Kevin Levin. On entend même, depuis quelques années, certains prétendus historiens assurer que des Noirs se sont battus côte à côte avec les Blancs dans l’armée sudiste. Mais il n’y a absolument aucun élément qui prouve ceci ! Ce qu’on sait, en revanche, c’est que certains militaires étaient partis se battre avec leurs esclaves, présents sur le front pour accomplir leur travail d’esclaves….
La guerre de Sécession est toujours une passion américaine, précise Kevin Levin. Mais cet intérêt est beaucoup plus émotionnel qu’intellectuel : cette guerre permet surtout aux Américains d’établir un lien avec leurs ancêtres, de ressentir le passé.
Those of you interested in issues at the intersection of Civil War history, public history, and memory may be interested in an upcoming symposium hosted by North Carolina State University’s history department on March 26. It’s a one day event, but the panels look to be quite interesting. The website for the event can be found here and includes a list of panels and participants. My panel focuses on the challenges of interpreting race at various historic sites and includes Ashley Whitehead (Doctoral Student at West Virginia University, Brian Jordan (Doctoral Student at Yale) and John Hennessy, who will offer his usual words of wisdom following the three presentations. Here is the title and abstract for my presentation:
“When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:
Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s. Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service. At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public. While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift. This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970. This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops. Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely. A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Even in the “Heart of Dixie” the Sons of Confederate Veterans can muster little more than a few hundred people from its ranks to commemorate the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Based on the YouTube clip below yesterday’s event sounded more like a political rally than a reenactment. The speaker’s comparison of the SCV’s challenges with Harry Potter and Rosa Parks reflects an intellectual bankruptcy that is bound to continue to marginalize the organization throughout the sesquicentennial.
The news coverage of the event thus far has been minimal and anything but flattering. [Consider the Associated Press's coverage.] Just about every article that I’ve read takes note of the Civil Rights history of Montgomery, the decision on the part of local and state officials not to participate, and the lack of interest among local business and civic leaders. This stands in sharp contrast with the centennial commemoration of Davis’s inauguration.
There is something truly perverse about the SCV appropriating Rosa Parks and the memory of African Americans being forced to sit in the back of the bus. African Americans were forced into the position of second class citizens by law and not of their own choosing. At no time has the SCV operated under these conditions. They have been free to make their case in the court of public opinion and in recent years they have failed miserably. A partial list of recent SCV debacles include:
The most recent circus is centered on a proposal to offer a series of vanity license plates in Mississippi, one of which will feature Nathan Bedford Forrest. Even the editorial board of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi thinks this is a bad idea. “What is appropriate is a proposal in the Legislature to designate a Civil Rights Memorial Day as a counterbalance to the state’s Confederate Memorial Day. This would be in keeping with earlier legislation that combined observances of Robert E. Lee’s birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s.” Did they really have to propose Forrest? Consider Robert Moore’s recent suggestion, which would have had my support and I suspect many others as well.
It goes without saying that bad history and a memory of the war that few people embrace is not a recipe for success. Our next stop on the sesquicentennial tour will be Fort Sumter in April. The SCV will be lucky if they arrive on the back of the bus. At this point I am imagining something more along the lines of a Go-Kart.