You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted. Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3. In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial. In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass. I do hope that is true. A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies. Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion. My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg. More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia. Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war. A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.
At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated. I think that’s the mark of a seminal book. Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war. For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions. In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga. I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book. However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both. I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way. It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons. I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans. That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black. Let me explain.
As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory. Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race. My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative. As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups. We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves. I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America. Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country. We should never forget what it took to bring this about. And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading →
In 1907, Mosby drove a dagger into the heart of Lost Cause mythology about slavery: “I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. The South went to war on account of slavery. I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country … the South was my country.” Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history? Or is it that nothing punctuates the long and violent story of white supremacy in America quite like the brief four years of the Confederate States of America?
Is it really all about federalism? Or the honoring of ancestors? Or valor and loyalty? Or regional identity? Or about white racial solidarity in an America becoming browner and more multi-ethnic every day? In 1951, in an essay probing how and why Americans have a difficult time facing their racial past, AfricanAmerican writer James Baldwin left a telling observation: “Americans have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”
We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory. If we do it better this time, we will need stronger verbs than “involved,” and a good dose of Mosby’s candor.
Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship. Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site. Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater. This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance. After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.