Tag Archives: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Talking Abolitionism at Arlington House

Given my current work on public history at Arlington House I thought I might share this upcoming event in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  On October 10 the National Park Service will present a program on John Brown’s Raid that features Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, as the guest speaker.  It seems fitting to hold an event that highlights Robert E. Lee’s connection with the Brown raid given his role in seizing control of the town and the federal armory and preventing a slave insurrection.  All too often we think of Lee’s involvement in this event as extending no further beyond the strict military role he played.  Of course, Arlington was a large plantation and while Lee was away much of the time he was responsible for carrying out the terms of George Washington Parke Custis’s will (1857) which included the terms for emancipating his slaves.  [I highly recommend Elizabeth Brown Pryor's treatment of Lee's views on slavery as well as the controversy surrounding the emancipation of Custis's slaves.]

I think it interesting to think of the ways in which such an event changes the ways in which the visitor understands the relationship between Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding landscape.  Lee becomes much more than a colonel in the United States Army.  We see Lee as a white Southerner who worried about the direct threat against the slaves under his control and the broader social and racial hierarchy that slavery supported.  The threat against his property connects directly with the home itself, which is so often depicted as a peaceful place or as the ideal antebellum domestic space.  [see here and here] Finally, such an event allows for the visitor to imagine a landscape that was once occupied and worked by slaves who constituted the largest population on the plantation.  The Lee’s may never have returned to Arlington after the war, but it is important to keep in mind that many of its occupants did and this we can understand as constituting one of the long-term consequences of John Brown’s raid.  The focus on abolitionism at Arlington House also opens up space in which to discuss the establishment of a Freedman’s Village for newly-freed slaves.  One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the challenges involved in interpreting Arlington House as a former plantation given the fact that the surrounding landscape has been turned into what many Americans deem to be sacred ground.  It seems difficult given that both Lee and Arlington House have been so successfully disconnected from slavery.  Events that stress this side of history are important if we hope to have a more complete understanding of the multiple and competing meanings that are inherent in this site.

David Blight on the Civil War Sesquicentennial

In the following commentary published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Blight reflects on the first major event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, which took place in Richmond, Virginia back in March.  Blight comments on the purpose and significance of the day-long symposium and how it reflects a fundamental change with the way the war was remembered during the Civil War Centennial (1961-65).  The final paragraph caught my eye:

Legacies can take endless forms — physical, political, literary, emotional. This time, we must commemorate our Civil War in all its meanings, but above all we must commemorate and understand emancipation as its most enduring challenge. This time, the fighting of the Civil War itself should not unite us in pathos and nostalgia alone; but maybe, just maybe, we will give ourselves the chance to find unity in a shared history of conflict, in a genuine sense of tragedy, and in a conflicted memory stared squarely in the face.

[Check out Blight's Online Civil War/Reconstruction course at Yale.]

Civil War Sesquicentennial Fast Approaching

I am counting down the days for Wednesday’s much-anticipated inaugural event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Virginia is far ahead of the pack in organizing events for this 4-year commemoration.  In fact, we are so far ahead that we extended the time line to include events marking the lead up to the war.  On Wednesday, April 29, 2,000 people from all over the country will converge on the University of Richmond for a day-long conference that addresses various aspects of life in the United States on the eve of the war.  Edward L. Ayers, who is the president of the university, as well as the organizer of the event, promises lively discussion along the lines of a format that we’ve come to know all so well in his scholarship:

We have the opportunity to look at this with a fresh eye.  Let’s enter into a conversation with these people of the past and understand just what they were thinking. How was it they could end up killing people that were their neighbors?

As I mentioned before, I will be attending this conference as something along the lines of an official blogger.  I will have full media access and will view the day’s proceedings from a media booth with the Washington Post, AP, Richmond Times-Dispatch, etc.  You will have a chance to view a live webcast and ask questions of the panelists through my blog.  [I recently read that VMI is also organizing a live webcast of the event on their campus.]  My plan is to live blog, Twitter, and take some video so you should expect constant updates in the form of commentary, interview, and images.  I will also be hosting The Educator’s Affinity Group Lunch for teachers who are interested in networking and discussing the morning sessions.  This promises to be an educational and fun day and I encourage all of you to take part.

I leave you with some thoughts from a few of the panelists:

Charles B. Dew, professor of American history at Williams College in Massachusetts, said southerners have been unwilling to confront a prewar economy based on slavery while northerners have sought to blot out memories of their own “profoundly racist” society.  “Americans, like most people, want a usable past. They want it to make sense,“ Dew said.  The conference, he said, is an opportunity “for shining some light in some of the darker corners in Virginia, and by extension, Southern history in a very critical moment.”

As president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Christy S. Coleman makes it her mission to offer a more complex, layered view of the conflict. The roles of women on the homefront and suffragists who began their activism in the anti-slavery movement are rarely told, she said.   “These women not only advocated for freedom of the enslaved, but began to tie the issue to the lack of freedom that women had in the nation,“ she said.

Manisha Sinha, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the role of black Americans is especially overshadowed in the “whitewashed version — literally and figuratively — of the war itself and its consequences.“  “It’s about time when we talk about the Civil War in the South that we take into perspective not just the views of white southerners but also of black southerners,“ she said.

Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial is Off and Running

2While other states are still in the beginning stages of organizing sesquicentennial commissions Virginia is getting ready to host a major event on Wednesday, April 29 at the University of Richmond’s Robins Center.  This is the first of a series of Signature Conferences that will be held throughout the sesquicentennial.  This first conference is titled, “America on the Eve of the Civil War” and will include four sessions, which will place participants in a position where they must take stock of the nation following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and anticipate its consequences as a presidential election loomes on the horizon.  The participants make up a who’s who list of Civil War historians.  They include, among others, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Manisha Sinha, Nelson Lankford, Charles Dew, and Ed Ayers.  Well over 1,700 people are registered to date, coming from all over Virginia plus 23 other states.  Registration is still open, though I urge you to reserve a seat now as it looks like it will eventually sell out.

I will be live blogging throughout the day.  In fact, I will be located in a special section with the rest of the media – should be a blast.  In addition to blogging, I will be hosting a luncheon for educators, the goal being to give teachers a chance to network and discuss the session topics.  I do hope that additional states can muster the political will and organize commemorative committees to better our understanding of this crucial period in American history.  For now, sit back and watch as Virginia sets the standard.

Update: The Q&A sections of the panels will include questions submitted electronically. It looks like you will be able to submit a question to me through the blog that I can relay to the Question Manager. I will provide more details as we get closer to the conference.

When Did the Civil War Start?

Dimitri Rotov seems to be perplexed over what is being billed as the first major event of Virginia’s Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration.  Since I am on the advisory board for Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission I thought I might say a few words about what went into the decision to begin in 2009.  On April 29 the University of Richmond will host a panel of distinguished historians who will discuss “America on the Eve of the Civil War.” This all-day event will bring together a distinguished panel of historians and will be hosted by Ed Ayers.  The format is as follows:

“America on the Eve of the Civil War” brings a fresh perspective on enduring issues. The program will be conducted in an interactive format with speakers from varied perspectives. Akin to news programs like “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press,” speakers will discuss events of 1859 and their effect, limiting themselves only to what would have been known at that time.

The goal is to try and capture as much of the contingency of events as possible.  Topics include the 1860 presidential election, John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry, and the place of Virginia in the South.  The event is free, but you are encouraged to register early.  I have already arranged with conference organizers to live blog the entire event.

I was present at a number of committee discussions that explored the proper scope of the sesquicentennial and it was determined that beginning with 1859 would set the right context for understanding the war years.  Of course, anyone who remembers the centennial celebrations knows that it kicked off in 1861 and made it a point to steer clear of the bigger issues of slavery and race.  The decision reflected the temperament of much of the country and a strong desire to maintain as much consensus as possible at the height of the Cold War and in the wake of desegregation.  Ultimately, it backfired as the Civil Rights Movement kicked into high gear and increasingly came to identify with the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War.  I think it is important to note that while scholars were well on their way to exploring the role that slavery played in the war by the 1960s it had yet to filter into the general public in any noticeable way.  In contrast, organizers are approaching the sesquicentennial from a very different perspective.  First, they hope to be much more inclusive in terms of subjects that deserve proper analysis and recognition.  More importantly, Virginia’s sesquicentennial will be educational and not celebratory.   Finally, the idea that slavery and race are central to understanding both the cause of the war as well as its outcome is no longer worth debating – unless, of course, you operate in certain circles.

It was pretty clear from the meetings that I attended that John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry sets the right tone for the sesquicentennial as a whole.  There is nothing to celebrate or get excited about as in the case of a bloody battle.   Brown’s raid is a crucial event in Virginia’s history that had important ramifications for the nation as it approached the 1860 presidential election and is one that must be understood.  Harpers Ferry also forces those interested to confront the problem of slavery that plagued the nation.  In effect, Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission is saying that the war started here.   At the same time there is the question of when to conclude the sesquicentennial.  Should Virginia acknowledge Appomattox as the end of the war or should it explore both the immediate and long-term effects on the state and the rest of the nation?  These are good questions that deserve to be explored and debated.  I am thankful that my state has put together a commission that is willing and eager to debate such questions.

While I’m at it let me take a moment to plug another event that I am involved with.  Between March 12 – 14 the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar will host a conference titled, “Lincoln and the South.” The three-day event brings together a number of heavyweights in the field, including James McPherson, Ed Ayers, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck, William J. Cooper, Manisha Sinha, and Charles Dew.  Although the conference is organized around panels, there will be no formal papers.  Moderators will engage fellow panelists as well as the audience in discussion.  I couldn’t be more thrilled about this as it is so difficult to keep your eyes open after the first 15 minutes of a formal paper.  I was asked to moderate a discussion for teachers and anyone else interested on the conference theme on Saturday morning over breakfast.  No doubt, I am going to need to practice eating my eggs and biscuit while speaking.