I received the following email a few days ago from an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, who is planning to write her senior thesis on Civil War memory. While I am flattered that this student is asking me for my advice, it seems silly not to tap the interests and experiences of my many readers. Your responses will serve as a helpful guidebook, not only for this student, but for anyone looking to explore this fascinating topic. Feel free to suggest readings, subtopics, questions, and anything else that you believe is relevant to this student’s project. Thanks everyone.
I am an avid reader of your blog, which I stumbled upon several months ago subsequent to some cursory online searches for information on contemporary Civil War memory. I am currently an undergraduate soon-to-be senior at UC Berkeley and am intending to write my senior thesis project on topics in contemporary Civil War memory, particularly the memory of slavery as an institution. I’m planning to look at historical societies and museums, NPS coverage and interviews, art, literature, reenactments, the timely sesquicentennial commemorations, politics and public discourse, and popular culture (from TV to YouTube) in both the North, South, and West. As part of a follow-up on this project, I plan to spend the year subsequent to graduation (and prior to applying to graduate school) writing high school, middle school, and elementary school curriculum as both a corrective to and an exploration of problems in Civil War memory. I know you do a lot of this in your classroom.
As you would know very well, has a comprehensive project like this yet been undertaken — am I being redundant or offering something valuable to this growing field of Civil War memory? If not, is there any literature that you know of on issues of contemporary Civil War and slavery memory (other than Blight, and, well, Tony Horowitz’ Confederates in the Attic)? I hope to contribute something meaningful that bridges the gap between academic and popular discourse on the Civil War and slavery generally — and memory in particular.
I apologize for asking these questions of you, as I know you are busy and this is perhaps asking a great deal — but you are certainly a flagship for a more popular discourse on Civil War memory, and you have certainly raised questions seeking a more academic approach. I hope with a comprehensive senior thesis that I plan to turn into a Ph.D. dissertation that I can start to open that academic discourse, even at the undergraduate level.
Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship. Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site. Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater. This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance. After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.
This post originally ran in April 2007. I thought it might be worth re-posting given the recent debate here in Virginia and throughout the country over Confederate History Month. I am wondering whether we are witnessing a decisive shift in our collective memory of the war? Is the governor’s apology an indication that it is no longer possible to use the Lost Cause for political gain?
One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president. How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:
As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now? And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?
The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions. This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963. The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative. Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War. Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others. It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president. In short, the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.
Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the “emptiness” referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors. I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember. It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative. It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South. More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy. In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.
More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president. We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes. Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South. What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.
Governor McDonnell would have us believe that his primary goal in re-instituting Confederate History Month was to promote tourism in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. On the face of it there is nothing wrong with promoting such an agenda. Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the content of his proclamation raises unsettling questions of whose tourist dollars the governor is interested in attracting and where he hopes those dollars will be spent:
Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today[.]
We can see clearly both who is being singled out and where those tourist dollars will end up. To the extent that we will see a boost in tourism over the next few years here in Virginia it is clear that our Civil War battlefields will benefit the most. It should come as no surprise that the major battlefields, many of them under the care of the National Park Service, will attract the vast majority of tourists and rightfully so. The proclamation also points to sites such as the Virginia Military Institute where the stories of brave soldiers can be found as well as the homes of prominent Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Museums that focus predominantly on military matters will also stand to benefit from such a proclamation.
Who will visit these sites? One can answer with the utmost of confidence that it will be an overwhelmingly white audience. Anyone familiar with heritage tourism understands that it is already incredibly difficult to attract African Americans to Civil War related sites, especially along the narrow lines outlined in the proclamation. Virginia’s love affair with the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War has alienated much of the black population who remain largely suspicious of a collective memory that has ignored their story for far too long. The governor’s proclamation reinforces this suspicion.
A more inclusive proclamation would have gone far to build bridges between communities by showcasing our historic sites, museums, and other resources to the widest possible audience. If we are to believe the governor’s claim that his goal was to attract tourist dollars than why not issue a proclamation that is more inclusive and which will stand to financially benefit sites beyond battlefields and the homes of famous Confederate leaders? It should come as no surprise that many of these sites are currently experiencing difficult financial times. Where do such sites as the Black History Museum in Richmond, the Bedford Historic Meeting House, the Booker T. Washington Home, the Black Soldiers Memorial in Norfolk, and Richmond Slave Trail fit into Governor McDonnell’s goal of attracting tourist dollars? How about a proclamation that also injects some much needed energy into plans for a National Slavery Museum?
I don’t mean to suggest that whites should stick to traditional Civil War sites as outlined in the governor’s SCV/Lost Cause inspired proclamation and that blacks should visit slavery museums and other sites that frame their history. A more inclusive proclamation has the possibility, however slim, of allowing Americans to explore a much richer past. I want to see black Americans visit battlefields as well as white Americans exploring significant sites associated with slavery not as part of the others story, but as part of our collective history.
The fallout over Governor McDonnell’s apology will no doubt continue throughout the day today. I will probably not follow much of it as I can anticipate the fault lines that will frame the vast majority of responses. Yesterday I offered a brief commentary as to what I think this turn of events signifies. It comes down to a significant segment of the population voicing their view that a Lost Cause narrative that held sway in Virginia throughout much of the twentieth century is no longer acceptable. That raises the question of how a governor should go about publicly recognizing an event that is crucial to our understanding of ourselves as individuals as well as our place within a collective narrative as Virginians and Americans.
The public discussion that has ensued will likely remain bitter and is unlikely to move us forward as a community. After all, for many this debate is about politics and about whose stories are worth remembering and cherishing. We desperately need to move out of our comfort zones to embrace a narrative and collective memory that is much more inclusive and that deals head on with the tough issues through serious scholarship.
Whenever these disputes arise I inevitably make my way over to Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog. Robert is a native Virginian who regularly shares his fascination with his own family’s rich history, which bridges many of the interpretive divides in the South. It’s a story that includes Confederates, Unionists and every shade in between. Robert embraces all of it on an emotional and scholarly level and has worked hard to reconcile and come to terms with what are often contradictory and conflicting narratives. Given the often contested strands of Civil War memory at work since the end of the Civil War Moore’s approach is refreshing. Unfortunately, his perspective on the Civil War as a white southerner is sometimes seen by others as a threat and is often marginalized. We do so at our own peril.
Consider Richard Williams’s most recent post on the governor’s proclamation. Williams is also a white Virginian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley and proudly defends his Confederate heritage. That defense often involves dismissing the views of others who he believes are illegitimate for any number of reasons. In his defense of the governor Williams provides links to both this site and a post authored by Brooks Simpson at Civil Warriors as examples of the relentless assault on tradition by the liberal elite. What is striking, however, is that Williams fails to provide a link to Robert Moore’s post even though there was a link on my post and Williams is a regular reader of Moore’s blog. He was no doubt aware of it. It’s easy for Williams to easily dismiss us as illegitimate; after all, Simpson and I are not native to the South. But what about Moore? He has as much of a claim on Virginia’s past as anyone and yet he is ignored entirely. The failure to provide a link speaks volumes.
Folks like Williams can cast the debate as an epic struggle or as a battle between two opposing views of the past only by ignoring fellow white Virginians like Moore. After summarizing his own family’s history, Moore offers the following observation about the governor’s proclamation:
That’s just one of the reasons why it’s obvious that Confederate History Month is too narrow in scope in regard to what is important for Virginians to recognize. It too easily serves as a dismissing “remembrance” activity, continuing to tuck away the complex truths about Virginia in the war. It’s convenient that while hurraying “our Confederate heritage”, we can so easily forget those Virginians who found it not so great; the disillusioned and disaffected, the Unionists and “leave-aloners”. What about those Virginians who walked on eggshells during this time, whites and blacks alike? Try living in a society in which you live under fear of harm or outright death if you wished to vote against secession. I don’t know how many accounts I have seen where Virginians were not able to voice their opinions and their devotion to the old Union without fear of violence, yet were just as passionate about what even they called “the sacred soil of Virginia.” How many “Virginia’s Confederates” were actually unwilling conscripts or were disaffected or disillusioned Confederates who were sometimes physically forced from their homes to either join or return to the ranks (and whose descendants continue to blindly praise these same people as “Confederate heroes”)? Whether free black, slave, white farm laborer, or whatever, Virginia’s Civil War heritage is defined by all of these people. Confederate History Month doesn’t perpetuate our understanding of this, but muddies the waters. That’s why Confederate History Month SHOULD be changed to Virginia Civil War Heritage Month, in order to identify the many different angles (including those who embraced the Confederacy) that define the reality that was Virginia at the time of the war. This IS the “Commonwealth’s shared history” and it IS important for all Virginians to recognize this.
This is the best explanation that I’ve read as to why we desperately need to move away from overly-simplified and nostalgic narratives of our Civil War past. We ought to be driven by a sincere interest in history and a commitment to understanding the complete story of how white and black Virginians struggled to make sense of four long years of destructive war. Moore’s commentary also offers a warning to the black community that it ought not so easily dismiss those who wish to remember and commemorate their Confederate ancestors. Acknowledging one’s Confederate ancestry does not imply racism.
Our insistence on continuing to carve up the calendar along lines that have a tendency to divide rather than unite Virginians will get us nowhere. I am hoping that next year Governor McDonnell will set aside April as a time to remember Virginia’s Civil War past in its totality. Robert Moore offers us an emotional and intellectual road map to get us there.