Upcoming Talks

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 “Upcoming Talks”

Confederate History Month to Civil War in Virginia Month

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.

We Could Just As Easily Have Waited For the Civil War Bicentennial

Gettysburg College historian, Allen Guelzo, has a short op-ed piece in the Gettysburg Times on the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Guelzo assumes a rather gloomy posture owing to the small number of states that have organized commissions, the inability of the federal government to get involved, and the continued difficulty to attract African Americans to Civil War related events.  All of these point, especially, the last one, deserve our attention and even concern, but I tend to think that Guelzo’s skepticism is misplaced.

To be completely honest, I am surprised as to what has been done already to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the war.  There is no reason why we must officially acknowledge this milestone.  We could just as easily wait for the bicentennial year.  It would be nice to see a few more states approach the level of activity to be found in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, but let’s not hold our breadth.  What Guelzo misses entirely is the number of museums along with state and local historical societies, which will organize events, teaching materials, and other resources for their local communities.  How about the attention that the National Park Service will bring to all of this?  Yes, their exhibitions and events will vary in quality, but that should not be of any great concern.  Perhaps Guelzo’s concern about the number of state commissions is more about how it reflects on Americans’ overall attitude to its collective past.  He may be asking, “Are we this disinterested in our past?”  Yes and no.  On the one hand we are in the middle of a pretty bad recession, which has no end in sight.  It’s no surprise that remembering events that took place long ago through the spending of millions of dollars may not seem like the best use of tax dollars.  I happen to agree with that sentiment. On the other hand, perhaps one can make the case that there is no longer a need for a top-down model of national historic commemoration.  Information is much more easily shared via the Internet and information is much more easily accessible by a broader spectrum of the general public.  We can see this in action here in Virginia as local communities are taking the lead in organizing Civil War commissions.

Guelzo concludes with the following:

There is a much to celebrate in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There is also a great deal of anger and disappointment, and in some places, downright contempt. The Civil War re-enactment community mistrusts academic Civil War historians; the academics, in turn, are regarded by the public historians as gate-crashers of their collections and exhibitions; public historians suspect relic and memorabilia dealers of piracy; and the general public seems interested in history only when it’s painted-up in bizarre, horror-movie formats. These are all obstacles in the path of a worthwhile Sesquicentennial. But the greatest challenge of the Sesquicentennial will be how to synthesize the Civil War’s “old” story of battles-and-reunion with the Civil War’s “new” story of race and gender. Until that begins to happen, and until the competing re-enactment, academic, and public empires decide that they all have a common stake in the Sesquicentennial, state legislatures, historical societies, and organizations are likely to take the safe road, and call the whole thing off.

There is something to this, but it smacks of arm-chair navel gazing.  The divisions between various constituencies cannot be so easily drawn and in the case of the relationship between reenactors (general public) and academic historians, I would argue that it is simply false.  I also think that Guelzo’s characterization of the general public’s interest in the past is also way off the mark.  It doesn’t explain the popularity of Glory or the fact that last year’s Signature Conference, sponsored by the University of Richmond and Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission attracted over 2,000 people.  Guelzo is absolutely right that the biggest challenge is expanding the general public’s understanding of the war beyond the battlefield, but even here I would suggest that he misses the mark.  Here in Virginia I’ve traveled to numerous historical institutions for exhibits and lectures over the past ten years that focus on issues of race and gender.  You can even find it at the Museum of the Confederacy. [“Before Freedom Came” takes us all the way back to 1992.]  No doubt, public historians have struggled with the question of how to attract African Americans to Civil War related events, but there is no magic bullet here.  All you can do is continue to work to present the general public with projects that reflect solid scholarship and a commitment to inclusiveness.

The extent and scope of our national Civil War commemoration will reflect local urges to take steps to organize.  No doubt, we will see much more of it in certain places around the country, but we should keep in mind that it does not have to be all or nothing.

SCV Not Happy With North Carolina Sesquicentennial Website

If the SCV really wants to be taken seriously during the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial than they are going to have to do better than what Walter L. Adams Jr. offers as a critique of North Carolina’s sesquicentennial website.  Adams is the heritage defense officer for Pettigrew’s Partisans, Camp 2110 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  That’s right, he is the heritage defense officer.   First, check out the website, which I think is an incredible resource and reflects a strong commitment on the part of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to commemorate the war in an inclusive and educational manner.  What’s he upset about?

  • The views of conservative columnist such as Walter Williams, economist Thomas J. DiLorenzo, and Professor Ludwell H. Johnson have been left out.
  • “The National Park Service deliberately ignores other factors such as high tariffs, adherence to constitutional principles, or fears of political and economic domination by the North that make for a considerably more complex situation.”
  • “No mention is made of the fact that before the war, Abraham Lincoln supported the original 13th Amendment that would have barred the federal government from ever interfering with that institution.”  — Not sure what this has to do with North Carolina.
  • “No mention was made of so-called Black Codes that Northern and Midwestern states adopted to discriminate against blacks before such codes were adopted in the South.”  — Not sure what this has to do with North Carolina.
  • “The role of black North Carolinians and other black Southerners who wore the gray was completely ignored.” And, of course they are upset that no mention is made of the “estimated 19,000 African-Americans…who bore arms in the Confederate armed forces.”

How can I become a heritage defense minister?