Organizers of tomorrow’s “Heritage Rally” in Montgomery, Alabama are making every effort to accurately recreate Jefferson Davis’s swearing in ceremony. They have stipulated which flags can be carried as well as guidelines for proper period clothing. As in the case of the recent Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina, we are unlikely to hear anything about the importance of slavery and race, which will no doubt be made easier by the fact that Davis’s speech does not explicitly mention it. I do find it interesting that the February 1861 event did not include Confederate soldiers nor did it include the flags that will likely be visible from every point along the parade route.
What I find interesting is the close identification that is implied between the presence of Confederate reenactors from various units and, arguably, one of the most important political events of the period. After all, it’s the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who constantly remind us that the common soldier ought not to be understood in political terms. In other words, they fought for hearth and home, but they certainly did not fight to maintain slavery. What tomorrow’s march up Dexter Ave. represents – even if it is unintentional – is the fact that the Confederate army operated as the military arm of the Confederate government. The army itself was an integral part of a political entity. By default the soldiers in the ranks fought to protect and preserve a constitution that was crystal clear about the importance of slavery and white supremacy as a defining principle of the new nation.
This close connection between the soldier and state will be reinforced tomorrow by the thunderous roar of hundreds of enthusiastic Confederate reenactors. We should be thankful that the cause for which they will cheer tomorrow was ultimately unsuccessful.
I am quite curious to see what the turnout will be this weekend in Montgomery, Alabama for the sesquicentennial commemoration of Jefferson Davis’s oath of office. According to Thomas Strain Jr. of Tanner, a member of the national board of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “We are trying to present a historical account of what happened 150 years ago.” They are hoping to have hundreds of reenactors march up Dexter Ave. toward the state Capitol. Strain doesn’t perceive this reenactment to be at all controversial. Fortunately, Mr. Strain doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t controversial. This commemoration cannot simply mark a discrete moment in the past independently of the events that took place in that city in more recent years. In this case that includes a history of civil rights protest by the very citizens of Montgomery – descendants of people that would have remained enslaved had the Confederate experiment in rebellion been successful. Because of this, Saturday’s commemoration will look nothing like the Montgomery of 1937 and that is something that we should all be thankful for.
An American Turning Pointis not a top-down study of battles and generals. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors in the experiences of a representative group of individuals and situations to promote an understanding of the wartime experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war. The stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia’s Civil War can be are found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.
The exhibit also reflects much broader changes since the Civil War Centennial surrounding how Americans have come to remember their Civil War. I see this exhibit as a crucial link between the work that historians have done over the past few decades and a general public that has shown strong signs of interest in this crucial moment in American history. Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS exhibit. Enjoy.
You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted. Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3. In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial. In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass. I do hope that is true. A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies. Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion. My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg. More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia. Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war. A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.
At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated. I think that’s the mark of a seminal book. Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war. For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions. In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
Note: Here is a link to a short update on the Washington Post’s blog. I will keep an eye out for some video of the news conference. As of Wednesday morning I can’t find a single Online article from a Richmond newspaper or anything else for that matter. Did anyone even show up to this news conference?
The inauguration of Governor Robert McDonnell
There is something quite pathetic about the Sons of Confederate Veterans holding a press conference to denounce Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and former Senator George Allen for what they perceive as violations of Confederate heritage. As many of you are aware this battle between the SCV and the governor started last spring over the latter’s handling of Confederate History Month. I am not going to rehash that debate in this post so I encourage you to go through my old posts if interested.
Their argument is nothing new: Civil War history has become overly politicized and taken hostage by liberal academics and other illegitimate groups that have prevented the SCV from acknowledging and commemorating their ancestors. These groups have successfully lobbied the governor to shun the SCV and their history as well as the roughly “2 million Virginia citizens [who] can trace their ancestry to a soldier who fought in the Confederate army” – the implication being that if you are descended from a Confederate soldier you automatically subscribe to the SCV’s preferred view. Such a view paints the SCV as the victims of a conspiracy or even as modern day warriors defending a lost cause. We are to believe that past celebrations of Confederate leaders and their cause from the late nineteenth century onward somehow fell outside of politics. Continue reading →