In the process of reviewing the final edits for my Crater book I’ve had to go through research files that have not been touched in a couple of years. Today I read through a bunch of editorials concerning the 1937 Crater re-enactment in Petersburg, which the National Park Service used to mark the inclusion of the battlefield within its jurisdiction. The event attracted around 50,000 people and was widely publicized around the state. Thought the support was overwhelming among white Virginians I was struck by the number of editorials the expressed concern over what they viewed as the glorification of war through re-enactment. Having experienced WWI and having to consider the possibility that American boys might be sent overseas once again it is not surprising that a vocal minority expressed concern. I thought I would share a few excerpts given the current debate about the place of re-enactments in the ongoing sesquicentennial.
Richmond Times-Dispatch (April 29, 1937)
It would be extremely unfortunate if the re-enactment of the Crater and other famous battles of the War Between the States under the auspices of the National Park Service, should impress upon onlookers with the feeling that war is a glamorous, or in any sense an alluring spectacle…. [W]e hope the lesson to be learned from it will that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.
The Petersburg Progress-Index (April 30, 1937)
We need to stop glorifying war and begin to glorify peace. I recall something in personal experience of the horrors of the so-called Civil War, and have had my best friend shot down by my side while warring with Indians, and we all have seen the results of the unrighteous World War, in which we had no business taking part. We should be cured of the war spirit. And that is the kind of spirit, that the re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater fosters among the youth of the land who are to be our future congressmen and leaders.
The Richmond News Leader (May 6, 1937)
Apropos the “Crater,” celebration at Petersburg. I am wondering if it was wise or helpful. Should we exploit the ruthless murdering called “war”? How about the horrible experiences of people in Spain? I hope the terrible occurrences are greatly exaggerated for it makes our hair stand on end to read of it.
After Virginia no other state has done more to commemorate the American Civil War than North Carolina. Their state commission has done an excellent job thus far of organizing activities that reflect an incredibly rich and complex past. They are doing their very best to make the war relevant to the state’s diverse population by focusing on a wide range of themes from the military to race to memory. I have a number of friends who are directly involved in the commission’s work and I can say with confidene that they are making an impact on a number of levels.
Even with all the work this group has undertaken it appears that not everyone is satisfied. In fact, there are two Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations taking place in North Carolina. The other one is being called the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial and they even have their own website. The commission is headed by Bernhard Thuersam, who works as a home designer. So, why an alternative commemoration?
I believe I speak for many Virginians when I say that we are very disappointed in the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and its blatant exclusion of any recognition of the 32,000+ Virginians who answered the State’s call to take up arms in her defense and never returned home, or the thousands more who survived the war and returned to help rebuild the ruins of the State.
While no one denies that slavery was one of the main issues that led to the conflict and deserves a place in any discussion of the War Between the States, this commission has taken its original focus of inclusion, which we applaud, and twisted it so far as to make slavery/emancipation its main focus, in effect excluding any remembrance of the men and women who so valiantly defended Virginia.
Now, we could jump in and detail for this individual the extent to which Virginia’s Confederates fit into the many projects sponsored by the commission, but that would be a waste of time. Even a cursory glance at their website should be sufficient to satisfy most people that the memory of the Confederate soldier is secure.
If we take one step back, however, it is clear that it is not the lack of coverage of the Confederate soldier that is of concern to this individual, but the way in which the narrative itself is framed. First, notice the nod to the importance of slavery as “one of the main issues” that led to secession and war, but once the war begins it’s about the soldiers and apparently there is no more need to bring it up. What this individual wants is a narrative that celebrates the Confederate soldier along with his goal of an independent nation. The coming year is going to be a good one for those Virginians who find themselves imagining the possibilities of a Confederate victory. It’s going to be Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust” on a grand scale.
I guess it comes down to the question of whether the state of Virginia should commemorate the Civil War as if it hoped to become part of an independent Confederate nation or in recognition that the past 150 years – even with all its setbacks – was a better outcome not only for the generation that fought the war, but for us as well.
Last month I gave a talk to the Rhode Island Civil War Round Table in which I offered an assessment of the first full year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial celebrations and commemoration. I decided to work on it a bit more and I am pleased to share it with you in The Atlantic. It looks like I will be writing for The Atlantic on a fairly regular basis as long as my schedule can accommodate it. Last week’s review of the Gingrich novel was a huge success. It led to an interview on public radio, but most importantly, it is connecting me to a much broader audience. Thanks again to Jenni Rothenberg at The Atlantic, who has been an absolute pleasure to work with.
It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention. It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT. Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War. The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar. Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war. From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.
There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well. As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.