Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant. All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks. If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook. Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery. Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s. Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.
The question of how far we’ve come in expanding and correcting certain elements of our collective memory of the Civil War has come up on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere. I have stressed the extent to which we have moved beyond a strictly Lost Cause narrative of the war to one that is much more inclusive, especially in reference to Unionists, women, and African Americans. This can clearly be seen on the institutional level in places such as the National Park Service and a wide range of history museums. While I believe it is important that we acknowledge these changes I don’t want to minimize the challenges that public historians continue to face in engaging the general public in programs that deviate from the popular stories of battles and leaders. This is a fight that is far from being won and I have nothing but admiration for those people work day to day on the front lines.
All we can hope for is that our public historians and other interested parties remain committed to doing good history that continues to deepen and expand the general public’s understanding of the nation’s past. However frustrating it is we do need to remind ourselves that many of the questions and subjects that are now openly being discussed are inconceivable just a few decades ago.
Exhibit A: The city of Charleston will commemorate Robert Smalls this coming weekend with a number of entertaining and educational programs. [Who is Robert Smalls?] Is there any evidence that Smalls’s name was mentioned once during the centennial? In the state and city where disunion began this weekend belongs to a black man, whose story directly challenges much of what many people continue to believe about the Civil War. Even if the events scheduled attract a smaller audience, compared to more popular Civil War related events, those who do attend will have been well served and in a position to share what they’ve learned. The simple fact that such an event has even been planned is worth acknowledging.
One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war. With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation. As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.
Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862. It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor. Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited. Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.
To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation, the Gilder Lehrman Center’s 2012 David Brion Davis Lectures on the History of Slavery, Race, and Their Legacies features a roundtable discussion with five major historians and writers, moderated by GLC Director, David W. Blight. The group takes up questions of the changing character and controversies over the memory of the Civil War and Emancipation over the past 150 years, as well as dwell on the place of the conflict’s legacies in our own time, nationally and internationally.
I thought Ta-Nahesi Coates stole the show.
[H/T to Jubilo! The Emancipation Century]
This popular Currier & Ives print from 1865, depicting the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, is one of the most popular images of the city in April 1865. It is impossible not to drive north toward the city on I-95 without it entering your mind’s eye. Now it is being used by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to attract tourists to the city’s rich Civil War history as well as the rest of the state.
The use of this particular print is a clever marketing technique that almost functions as a gestalt switch between two interpretations. On the one hand, we know this image as marking the end of the Confederacy, but in the hands of the Visitors Bureau it is now a symbol of new beginnings. We can freely move back and forth between the two interpretations.
To use this image, however, is to be reminded that the burning and evacuation of Richmond did lead to the emancipation of thousands of Richmond slaves that were freed by the Union army. It is story that all Americans ought to explore if they are truly interested in the American Civil War. Of course, we are likely to hear the same tired rumblings from certain quarters, but let’s be clear about one thing. While good marketing works to sway the perceptions of potential customers it must begin by acknowledging how they currently view their world and what will motivate them to take action.
In this case it is safe to say that this ad builds on certain cultural, social, and political changes that have been at work in Richmond for the past three decades.