Sutherland offered a rather gloomy view of the Sesquicentennial in comparison with the excitement that clearly animated him as a child during the Centennial. Even with all of the media attention surrounding this commemoration I tend to share his skepticism, but our agreement ends with the assessment itself. Sutherland seems to believe that the lack of- or waning interest in the Civil War can be attributed to a failure of our generation. At one point he commented on the seeming lack of interest in history among our students as well as the increased distraction attributed to the Internet. I cringe when I hear such uninformed analysis that adds to our tendency to blame everything on our kids. Sutherland acknowledges that much of the early excitement during the Centennial was a function of the narrow focus on battlefield heroics and larger than life personalities that were completely cut off from any concern about broader issues of race and slavery. At the same time, however, he seems to continue to grasp at the child whose imagination was spurred to action by American Heritage with its glossy maps and images. At one point Sutherland asked whether whether the nation will take the time to commemorate the Civil War Bicentennial.
One of the first posts that I wrote on this blog was a brief reflection on the graying of our Civil War Roundtables, which flourished in the period following the Centennial. It’s safe to say that their days are numbered. The Centennial clearly had an influence on a generation of white Americans, but let’s not jump too quickly to a conclusion that sets them aside as some kind of “Greatest Generation.” We would do well to understand the broader cultural and political forces that shaped the Centennial narrative and we should also remember their proximity to the war itself. In the early 1960s there were plenty of people who had grown up listening to the stories of the veterans themselves. That closeness matters. We should also keep in mind the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War on our understanding of the nature of war and government. Perhaps the excitement that Sutherland continues to recall about his childhood is a product of a unique moment in American history that is impossible to repeat.
I suspect that we won’t see the kind of resurgence of interest in the Civil War that we did in the 1960s and perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that kind of excitement wasn’t so good four our collective understanding of the war. We should be thinking more critically about what the Civil War means to this generation and at this specific point in time. And in 50 years I hope the nation does the same from its unique perspective and place in time.
I’ve already shared and commented on Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s address at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial conference at Norfolk State University. Here is the address in its entirety. It really is a remarkable address and serves as an excellent window into discussions about historical memory. It’s nice to see that the governor’s understanding of the war and how we should go about commemorating it mirrors the hard work of the state’s Sesquicentennial Committee. Additional clips from the conference will be made available via YouTube.
Last night I took part in a community forum on the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Waite Rawls, III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The event took place in Alberta at the Southside Virginia Community College and was organized by Brunswick County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. For about 1 hour, and in front of a racially-mixed audience numbering around 100, we discussed the reasons for and importance of commemorating the sesquicentennial. It was a lively discussion and it was truly an honor to be asked to join this roundtable. I have nothing but the highest admiration for the work that Christy and Waite do at their respective institutions on a daily basis. The challenges they face are numerous, but they proceed with the full understanding that their work matters. I could listen to Christy talk about public history all night long.
Each of us had an opportunity to make an opening statement, which I used to discuss my work in the classroom and how I’ve tried to integrate the sesquicentennial into some of my lessons. I talked about readings, class discussions, and my annual trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. The audience was given plenty of time to ask questions and they did not disappoint. I was singled out early on in the discussion by a group, whose questions were entertaining if not predictable. One individual asked where I was born followed by some rather odd questions about my teaching style. My personal favorite was a question that asked if I teach my students that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart were great men. I usually don’t respond to the place of birth question, but I successfully diffused it by pointing out that I am from southern New Jersey. The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth. As to the importance of Lee and the rest of the gang I simply noted that as a history teacher it is not my responsibility to tell them what to believe about any historic figure. My job is to provide my students with the analytical skills to draw their own conclusions. Some of these same people suspect that I am corrupting my students by teaching them to “hate the South” and yet they have no problem telling me how I should influence what my students believe about the Civil War. Continue reading →
The Georgia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans is gearing up for the sesquicentennial with a series of commercials that will air on the History Channel in December. These videos will fit perfectly in between Ice Road Truckers, American Pickers, Pawn Stars and various documentaries about UFOs and Hitler’s Bunker. The first video offers an outline of what the war was about:
Men and women of the South courageously stood for liberty in the face of insurmountable odds. Is this meant for black and white southerners?
The South peacefully seceded just like the Founding Fathers did in 1776.
All the South wanted was to be left alone to govern itself.
Lincoln fought to maintain taxes and tariffs.
Men like Jackson, Forrest, and Lee fought valiantly and were often outnumbered 5 to 1. You would think that the Georgia Division would reference military leaders from their home state.
As I was going through the videos I realized that this series will make for a very interesting assignment in my Civil War Memory course, which I am teaching next trimester. I am going to split up the class into groups of two and assign a video to each group. Their assignment will be to critique the video by consulting relevant recent scholarship on their respective topics. Students will be responsible for surveying both the strengths and weakness of these videos. For instance, one of the videos on slavery goes into restrictions on free blacks in states like Indiana as well as offering a few points about the place of slavery in the North and involvement in the international slave trade. At the same time the video almost completely ignores the place of slavery in the South. The video on South Carolina’s secession makes no mention of its own Ordinance of Secession. They can write up an analysis and present it to the rest of the class or make a video response and upload it to YouTube. Thanks Georgia SCV.
On October 26 from 7-9:00pm I will be taking part in a forum sponsored by the Brunswick County Committee of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. The event will take place at the Southside Virginia Community College, Workforce Development Center in Alberta, Virginia and will be organized into two sections. A short segment will begin with a welcome from Marc Finney, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, followed by Cheryl Jackson will give a brief overview of the state commission and the commemoration. Senator Ruff and Delegate Tyler will make brief comments on the importance of the commemoration. Charlette T. Woolridge, County Administrator will then talk about the county committee. The second part of the evening will feature a roundtable that includes yours truly, Waite Rawls of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christie Coleman from the National Civil War Museum at Tredegar. Professor Stephen Walker will serve as moderator. A large crowd is expected and the entire program will be videotaped by the college. Continue reading →
Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year’s Virginia Sesquicentennial conference on Race and Slavery at Norfolk State University owing to a school visit by former First Lady, Laura Bush. For those of you looking for some excellent commentary on today’s proceedings I urge you to head over to Jimmy Price’s blog, The Sable Arm. I am sure at some point the conference proceedings will be made available, but one of the highlights has to be Governor McDonnell’s opening remarks in which he announced that he will not “move forward with a proclamation to claim April 2011 as ‘Confederate History Month.’ Instead, he will proclaim next year’s observation as ‘Civil War in Virginia Month’ as a way to settle longstanding disputes within the Commonwealth over its history as the former capitol of the Confederacy during the Civil War.” The governor’s remarks were spot on and I especially appreciate the following:
In the century and a half since the armistice was executed at Appomattox, few states have undergone as many changes, or witnessed such stunning growth and progress, as our Commonwealth. Our borders have been fixed for 147 years; but our culture, community, and breadth of opportunity have been incredibly dynamic. These changes have made Virginia a stronger and better place.
But they have also made our collective “memory” — how our diverse society remembers and processes the events in its collective history — much more complicated. In earlier times, Virginia’s dominant culture was defined by relatively few, and basic civil rights were excluded for many. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that culture, and both were present in abundance, as in any human enterprise – there was a common lens through which to view history. Those in power wrote a single, narrow narrative. It left out many people, along with their powerful stories. And so, while talking about our history has become more complicated today, we can all agree it has also become a much richer conversation.
I couldn’t be more pleased with the governor’s decision as well as his incredibly thoughtful address.