I was unable to attend the most recent biennial meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians back in June so I missed the keynote address by Gary Gallagher and Ed Ayers. Luckily, C-SPAN was there and recorded the entire session. I am particularly interested in Gallagher’s talk since it encompasses much of what will be included in his forthcoming book, The Union War. Gallagher argues that the role of Union forces must be acknowledged in any attempt to understand the progress of emancipation during the war. In doing so he challenges the self-emancipation thesis as well as the more popular image of Lincoln as the “great emancipator.” Here is a short clip of Gallagher’s talk while you can find the entire session here.
Check out these short videos at Gilder Lehrman’s YouTube site, which include interviews with Gary Gallagher, Ed Ayers, Allen Guelzo, Thomas Bender, and Ira Berlin. Search the full list of videos and you can view interviews with James and Louis Horton and David Blight. They can be used in the classroom, though they range in usefulness.
I am counting down the days for Wednesday’s much-anticipated inaugural event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Virginia is far ahead of the pack in organizing events for this 4-year commemoration. In fact, we are so far ahead that we extended the time line to include events marking the lead up to the war. On Wednesday, April 29, 2,000 people from all over the country will converge on the University of Richmond for a day-long conference that addresses various aspects of life in the United States on the eve of the war. Edward L. Ayers, who is the president of the university, as well as the organizer of the event, promises lively discussion along the lines of a format that we’ve come to know all so well in his scholarship:
We have the opportunity to look at this with a fresh eye. Let’s enter into a conversation with these people of the past and understand just what they were thinking. How was it they could end up killing people that were their neighbors?
As I mentioned before, I will be attending this conference as something along the lines of an official blogger. I will have full media access and will view the day’s proceedings from a media booth with the Washington Post, AP, Richmond Times-Dispatch, etc. You will have a chance to view a live webcast and ask questions of the panelists through my blog. [I recently read that VMI is also organizing a live webcast of the event on their campus.] My plan is to live blog, Twitter, and take some video so you should expect constant updates in the form of commentary, interview, and images. I will also be hosting The Educator’s Affinity Group Lunch for teachers who are interested in networking and discussing the morning sessions. This promises to be an educational and fun day and I encourage all of you to take part.
I leave you with some thoughts from a few of the panelists:
Charles B. Dew, professor of American history at Williams College in Massachusetts, said southerners have been unwilling to confront a prewar economy based on slavery while northerners have sought to blot out memories of their own “profoundly racist” society. “Americans, like most people, want a usable past. They want it to make sense,“ Dew said. The conference, he said, is an opportunity “for shining some light in some of the darker corners in Virginia, and by extension, Southern history in a very critical moment.”
As president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Christy S. Coleman makes it her mission to offer a more complex, layered view of the conflict. The roles of women on the homefront and suffragists who began their activism in the anti-slavery movement are rarely told, she said. “These women not only advocated for freedom of the enslaved, but began to tie the issue to the lack of freedom that women had in the nation,“ she said.
Manisha Sinha, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the role of black Americans is especially overshadowed in the “whitewashed version — literally and figuratively — of the war itself and its consequences.“ “It’s about time when we talk about the Civil War in the South that we take into perspective not just the views of white southerners but also of black southerners,“ she said.
While other states are still in the beginning stages of organizing sesquicentennial commissions Virginia is getting ready to host a major event on Wednesday, April 29 at the University of Richmond’s Robins Center. This is the first of a series of Signature Conferences that will be held throughout the sesquicentennial. This first conference is titled, “America on the Eve of the Civil War” and will include four sessions, which will place participants in a position where they must take stock of the nation following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and anticipate its consequences as a presidential election loomes on the horizon. The participants make up a who’s who list of Civil War historians. They include, among others, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Manisha Sinha, Nelson Lankford, Charles Dew, and Ed Ayers. Well over 1,700 people are registered to date, coming from all over Virginia plus 23 other states. Registration is still open, though I urge you to reserve a seat now as it looks like it will eventually sell out.
I will be live blogging throughout the day. In fact, I will be located in a special section with the rest of the media – should be a blast. In addition to blogging, I will be hosting a luncheon for educators, the goal being to give teachers a chance to network and discuss the session topics. I do hope that additional states can muster the political will and organize commemorative committees to better our understanding of this crucial period in American history. For now, sit back and watch as Virginia sets the standard.
Update: The Q&A sections of the panels will include questions submitted electronically. It looks like you will be able to submit a question to me through the blog that I can relay to the Question Manager. I will provide more details as we get closer to the conference.
I am doing quite a bit of reading over this holiday break. One of the books I am making my way through is Capitol Men by Philip Dray. The book tells the story of the principal black leaders in Congress during Reconstruction. It’s well written and does a thorough job of explaining both the backgrounds of the individual subjects as well as the tumultuous times in which they lived. Actually, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Reconstruction and the postwar years generally, and there is a great deal to choose from. One can’t help but be impressed by the selection of books on Reconstruction that have been published over the past few years. [Click here for Ed Blum’s overview of this literature.] Just a few years ago you would be lucky to find the abridged version of Eric Foner’s magisterial history of the period. But the recognition of a spike in interest in the subject also begs for explanation. This influx of new books couldn’t have come at a better time given the election of our first black president. That said, this welcome change probably has little to do with the recent election.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the historiography of Reconstruction. I’ve read a bit of U.B. Phillips, and others who studied under William Dunning at Columbia; Dunning reinforced a rather narrow view of Reconstruction as a failure and one that reinforced white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century. It’s important to keep in mind that although this school of thought was challenged by scholars beginning in the early 1950s, and even more so in the 1970s, these debates were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands of newly-freed slaves, and a dismissal of the black perspective generally. However, it was not until the 1988 publication of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (and shortly thereafter, the abridged edition) that a broader audience was offered a readable account that synthesized much of this scholarship. In addition to winning a number of academic awards it also received a great deal of attention in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. It’s hard to say how much of an effect Foner’s book had on our popular perceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction – probably little to none, but it is difficult to deny his importance to this new crop of recent historical studies. Most of these authors acknowledge Foner’s scholarship as invaluable in their own quest to better understand the period.
But if Foner’s work constitutes perhaps the best example of a scholarly reconfiguration of our understanding of Reconstruction than it is the war in Iraq, which has introduced that scholarship to a broader demographic. It should come as no surprise that a resurgence of interest came at a time when the public discourse was centered around the reconstruction of Iraq. Historians such as Ed Ayers chimed in with op-ed pieces, which highlighted the challenges of such a venture and reminded the American people of an earlier attempt at trying to reconstruct a deeply-entrenched political, social, and racial hierarchy. Following a list of lessons that one should take away from that “First Occupation”, Ayers concludes with the following:
A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation’s history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge — and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.
It is not a stretch to imagine scholars and writers of various sorts following up their reading of these editorials by taking a more in-depth look at what went wrong with the federal government’s earlier attempt at Reconstruction, even as our public officials struggled to explain to the America people why there was so little progress in Iraq. For those of us who had an understanding of the difficulties involved in reconstructing a society, the president’s declarations, which reduced the challenge down to the conviction that all people desire freedom seemed grossly naive and even reckless.
The street fighting in Baghdad and Falujah echo those that took place in New Orleans, Memphis, and elsewhere, and while Americans were shocked at the indiscriminate killing among religious sects the postwar terrorism against newly-freed slaves rivals anything to be found in the Middle East. Recent studies of postwar violence include Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2007) and Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007). Two books, one by Charles Lane and the other by LeeAnna Keith, explore the Colfax Massacre of 1873. This does not include the numerous scholarly of Reconstruction violence against African Americans, and even newer editions of older studies, that have been published over the past few years. Collectively, these books can be seen as a vindication of Ayers’s warning that a nation engaged in so difficult a project as the reconstruction of another country ought to proceed with “humility and self-knowledge.”
If there is a silver lining in this resurgence of interest it is that a much larger audience now has access to books that present Reconstruction in a much more sophisticated light, one that takes seriously the steps that Americans took to extend and protect basic civil rights regardless of race. It not only involves moving beyond the overly simplistic language of scalawags and carpetbaggers, but involves giving voice to black and white leaders who worked to extend the franchise and other political rights to former slaves and even the vast majority of poor whites who had been excluded from the polity. Recent book include Garrett Epps’s Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007), Eric Foner’s Forever Free, as well as Dray’s Capitol Men. American Experience’s recent documentary on Reconstruction also reflects this newfound interest.
Finally, this could not have come at a better moment in the history of this country. With our first black president set to take office in a matter of weeks it is comforting to know that a solid body of historical scholarship is available for those who are interested in placing Barack Obama’s candidacy within a broader historical context. It is important for us to understand the struggle that led to this moment in our history, and in doing so, we should acknowledge that while it is a momentous step in a new direction, it is but one step on a long road that involves appreciating the extent to which race has shaped this nation’s political, social, and economic hierarchy. We should ask the tough questions related to the timing of Obama’s candidacy, why it didn’t or perhaps couldn’t happen sooner, and why so few African Americans have served in the federal government since Reconstruction. We should ask these questions not with the goal of self-hatred, but because we are all part of this larger national narrative, and because Democracy is a constant struggle. I am under no illusion that large numbers of Americans will flock to the bookstores to purchase these recent titles; however, the fact of their availability suggests to me that our society is in a much better place to ask some of these tough questions that at any time before.