WHEREAS, the month of April is most closely associated with Virginia’s pivotal role in the American Civil War; it was in April 1861 that Virginia seceded from the Union following a lengthy, contentious and protracted debate within the Commonwealth, and it was in April 1865 that the War was essentially concluded with the South’s surrender at Appomattox. In the four years that fell between those momentous months, Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy, and it was on Virginia soil that the vast majority of the Civil War’s battles were fought, in places like Manassas, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, New Market, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, locations now forever linked with the indelible history of this perilous period; and
Over the past few months I’ve done a number of interviews about the Civil War Sesquicentennial. At the end of my latest interview this past Friday the reporter noted that this was not the story that she anticipated writing. What she meant was that she was not going to write up a story around the standard narrative of lingering disagreements and bitterness between North and South and black and white. As I’ve suggested on numerous occasions, that narrative simply does not hold up given the political and demographic shifts that have taken place throughout much of the country over the past few decades.
As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]
I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention. My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield. I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans. I’m not even sure how one would go about this. At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.
It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past. With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past. [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig’s and Thelen’s, The Presence of the Past.] A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history. I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message. I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video. Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.
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….