It’s probably too late to say anything substantial about the sesquicentennial at this stage, but two recent events suggest that Americans remain interested in the Civil War and continue to travel to various destinations in impressive numbers. Fellow bloggers Robert Moore and Craig Swain both attended events commemorating the 150th of Antietam and were encouraged by what they saw. This past weekend John Hennessy attended and spoke at an event built around the famous August 19, 1862 photograph of slaves crossing the Rappahannock River to freedom. He estimates that anywhere between 300 and 350 people were in attendance. Finally, it will come as no surprise that Gettysburg is bracing for a large turnout next summer.
We continue to enjoy a steady stream of Civil War books from both academic and popular publishers. I also get the sense that public history programs related to the Civil War era have continued at a healthy pace. All in all, I remain very optimistic. What do you think?
One of the features of American Experience’s documentary Death and the Civil War that I really like is its emphasis on the lingering bitterness over how to commemorate the Civil War dead. Although the film says nothing about the significance of Lincoln’s death it does explore the decision by the federal government to re-inter only Union dead in newly established national cemeteries. We would do well to remember this on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.
One of the most frequent questions that I use to get from my students at the national cemetery in Fredericksburg was why it only included Union dead. I suspect that this question is ultimately a reflection of the power of reunion and reconciliation as well as the loss of any sense that our civil war was a rebellion. Newspaper and radio coverage today is long on vivid descriptions of the violence at Antietam and how that a victory allowed Lincoln to finally issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That decision is almost always coupled with the observation that the turn toward emancipation made it possible to shift wartime goals in the direction of something meaningful. Over the past few days we’ve been told how important it is to remember, but surely we’ve lost sight of something significant about our history.
No, I will not be spending the day re-fighting the Civil War, but as I’ve stated before on this blog I am not a disinterested observer. I am grateful that United States soldiers were successful in pushing back the Confederacy’s offensive into Maryland, not because it led to emancipation, but because it ultimately brought this country one step closer to winning the war. This is not meant to downplay the importance of emancipation, but as a reminder that the preservation of this nation mattered to these men, just as it matters to all of us today. It is a stance that reflects my identification not as a northerner or southerner, Republican or Democrat, but as a citizen of the United States.
There is a reason why the overwhelming number of monuments on the Antietam battlefield were placed to honor the sacrifice of this nation’s citizen soldiers. The same holds for the dead who rest on the battlefield’s national cemetery. It should be a reminder to each of us today that the deaths of these men is part of a much larger history of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
I know the feeling. It’s a beautiful morning here in Boston, but I would much rather be tramping along the Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg just about now. Here are a few options for those of you looking to feel more connected today and tomorrow. First, C-SPAN [Click here if you do not get C-SPAN 3 (10am EST)] will provide live coverage of events today at the battlefield, which include a series of talks and Q&A from James McPherson, Mark Neely, and Harold Holzer. They will also broadcast a tour of the battlefield led by Brooks Simpson and Mark Grimsley. I believe this is the tour they led as part of the most recent Civil War Institute back in June. I also highly recommend checking out the Civil War Trust’s Antietam 360. It puts you right on the battlefield and for you teachers it also makes for a great classroom application.
Finally, I suspect that most of you have read your fair share of Antietam books and essays. Richard Slotkin’s new book is out. I’ve read sections of it and it reads well, but like his recent study of the Crater, which I enjoyed , it is not built on extensive research in the archives or even the secondary literature. My recommendation is to pre-order Scott Hartwig’s forthcoming study, To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 (Johns Hopkins University Press). Many of us have been looking forward to this one for some time. Scott is a dynamite historian and at 800 pages it promises to be the most thorough analysis since Joseph Harsh’s 2-volume study. I should have an advanced copy in hand in the next few days.
That should get you started in creating your own personal Antietam 150 experience. Enjoy.
This is one of those events that makes me wish that I still lived and taught in Virginia. My Civil War class would be front and center at this event. On September 22 a recreation of an 1862 slave crossing of the Rappahannock will take place at Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run. The famous photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan of slaves fording the river in that area on August 19, 1862 will serve as inspiration for the reenactment.
It’s nice to have a visual window into the crossing of slaves to freedom. [See John Hennessy’s thoughtful analysis of the image at Mysteries and Conundrums and here] We have so few, but it does mean that the individuals in this photograph must somehow reflect our assumptions about what took place or what we hoped took place on the river. More importantly, we run the risk of reducing the slavery to freedom narrative to one moment. It’s one of the reasons I highly recommend Jim Downs’s new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Downs’s study reminds us that the steps toward freedom and beyond were fraught with challenges.
That a reenactment of the crossing is taking place at all is just another indication of how far our memory of the war has evolved. It’s also interesting to see the language of “self emancipation” being used in the online flier for this event – a reference that comes right out of the recent academic debate concerning the proper interpretation of emancipation. I hope the event gets the coverage it deserves and I do hope that people will take part to mark the event.
Today I came across the Remembering Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom Project, which is a partnership between The College of William and Mary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Association. This really is a wonderful example of how technology can promote and shape a community’s efforts to commemorate its past. What I like most about this project is the grassroots element. Organizers are not just looking for Facebook likes or Twitter followers; rather, they are encouraging involvement through attendance at any number of community meetings across Virginia. Here is a list of their goals:
To publicly recognize sites throughout the Commonwealth associated with slavery, resistance to slavery, and emancipation from slavery
To foster respect for the lives of enslaved persons and to contribute to an honest and informed public understanding of the consequences of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans
To assist in the public’s recognition of “slaves” as complete persons who recognized and asserted their own humanity by memorializing their dead, who should be credited for what they produced, and who, by their very humanity and personalities, naturally resisted attempts to turn Africans and African Americans into property
To reveal the pervasive historical presence of African and African American lives and experiences
To provide events of remembrance that contextualize Virginia’s commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Lincoln’s relevance to Virginia and the Emancipation Proclamation
To design a commemorative website based on the messages and goals identified by regional communities
Whether you like it or not, Lincoln is central to Virginia’s story of emancipation. You may remember that the Virginia Assembly recently failed to pass a resolution honoring Lincoln. With the Assembly’s backing of this project I have to wonder whether they had any influence on the goals listed here. It will be interesting to see whether the meetings and other forms of feedback lead to any substantial recognition of his place in this story.
This project is a positive sign given that I have not heard much on the Emancipation 150 front.