Well, at least that is what Governor McDonnell announced at a recent conference sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. With April right around the corner, however, we have yet to see a proclamation outlining the scope of the commemoration. Perhaps the governor’s advisers are studying a recent Harris Poll on how Americans identify with this history. Whatever is announced, I trust it will be as thoughtful as this speech.
This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory. This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War. My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.
I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities. During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month. No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture. I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation. The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.
The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources. I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible. In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation. In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation. The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame. I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions. Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together. Continue reading
Note: Here is a link to a short update on the Washington Post’s blog. I will keep an eye out for some video of the news conference. As of Wednesday morning I can’t find a single Online article from a Richmond newspaper or anything else for that matter. Did anyone even show up to this news conference?
There is something quite pathetic about the Sons of Confederate Veterans holding a press conference to denounce Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and former Senator George Allen for what they perceive as violations of Confederate heritage. As many of you are aware this battle between the SCV and the governor started last spring over the latter’s handling of Confederate History Month. I am not going to rehash that debate in this post so I encourage you to go through my old posts if interested.
Their argument is nothing new: Civil War history has become overly politicized and taken hostage by liberal academics and other illegitimate groups that have prevented the SCV from acknowledging and commemorating their ancestors. These groups have successfully lobbied the governor to shun the SCV and their history as well as the roughly “2 million Virginia citizens [who] can trace their ancestry to a soldier who fought in the Confederate army” – the implication being that if you are descended from a Confederate soldier you automatically subscribe to the SCV’s preferred view. Such a view paints the SCV as the victims of a conspiracy or even as modern day warriors defending a lost cause. We are to believe that past celebrations of Confederate leaders and their cause from the late nineteenth century onward somehow fell outside of politics. Continue reading
Well, it’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in my office preparing my classes for the start of a new trimester. Once again, I am teaching an elective called, Civil War Memory, which I’ve offered over the past three years. The course has taken different forms from a standard readings course to a course on film. This year I am trying to structure the course so as to give my students a sense that they are contributing to the ongoing discussion about how the Civil War ought to be commemorated throughout the sesquicentennial. I’ve played around with the idea of having my class form their own commission and build a website that would outline what they hope to accomplish over the next few years. One of the activities planned will ask students to write their own proclamation for the state of Virginia after a careful examination of documents related to Governor McDonnell’s experience.
I tend to use the first day of a new class to jump right in rather than go through the tedious steps of outlining the course as well as my expectations. Most of my students are already aware of my expectations and they can read the outline on the course website. Let’s get to the important stuff. I think I found a promising little lesson to get things going. This morning I read a brief editorial in our local newspaper that attempts to give voice to our courthouse Confederate statue:
My name is Johnny Reb, the young soldier you see downtown every day at the courthouse. I killed and died for the Confederate States of America. I now see the great pain and suffering I brought to my family and my country in this misguided war. I am sorry too for attempting to perpetuate the slavery of Africans, brought here in cruel servitude, an enduring stain on America’s heritage of liberty. “If I could rise from my grave, I would walk to President Lincoln’s memorial in Washington and ask his forgiveness. And I would ask to shake the hand of President Obama and thank him for his service in healing the great country America has become despite my mistake.
I’m not so concerned about the substance of the editorial as much as I am with the imaginative act of speaking for the statue – an act that reminds us that our understanding of the meaning of these sites is always changing. Perhaps I will come up with a couple of questions to assist them or maybe it’s better just to let them go to see what they come up with. Most of my students will have taken my survey course on the war. This is also a way to connect students to the local memory of the Civil War and this exercise can be done on any number of grade levels. I will let you know what, if anything, comes of it.
I’ve already shared and commented on Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s address at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial conference at Norfolk State University. Here is the address in its entirety. It really is a remarkable address and serves as an excellent window into discussions about historical memory. It’s nice to see that the governor’s understanding of the war and how we should go about commemorating it mirrors the hard work of the state’s Sesquicentennial Committee. Additional clips from the conference will be made available via YouTube.