A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past

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 “A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past”

“He Has Essentially Stopped the Entire American Civil War in Virginia”

Update #2: I haven’t seen any kind of review of the movie in the local Fredericksburg papers, but Michael Aubrecht posted a few comments on his blog.  As I stated below, I have not seen the movie, but plan to do so at some point.  Regardless of the movie’s interpretation I am pleased to read that the premiere was well attended.  The folks involved put a great deal of work into this production and it’s always nice to see hard work rewarded.

Update: I want to make it perfectly clear that my comments should not be read in any way as a critique of this movie.  I HAVE NOT SEEN IT.  My comments should be understood as more general critique of the story’s continued popularity in our collective memory of the Civil War.  The movie may, in fact, take a completely different approach to understanding Kirkland’s actions and its broader meaning than what passes as the standard interpretation.  I am not even suggesting that people not attend this premiere.  If I were in the area I would love to see what Aubrecht and Ross have come up with.  More than likely I will order a copy of the film for analysis in my Civil War class.

Michael Zitz’s article on the premiere of the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a film about Sgt. Richard Kirkland – along with my interview, appeared in today’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.  It looks like both Clint Ross and Michael Aubrecht were asked to respond to my concerns about the veracity of the story.  Unfortunately, nothing that was said challenges the core problem with this story, which is a lack of wartime sources.  Aubrecht actually suggests that skeptics prove a negative:

All I can say at this point is that every historian involved with this project, both in front of and behind the camera, to include the Fredericksburg National Park Service who are the custodians of Kirkland’s memory, have found no evidence that disproves this story.

I don’t know how anyone would go about trying to prove that it didn’t happen given the lack of evidence and it is dishonest to paint the NPS in Fredericksburg as somehow united in their belief that the Kirkland story is true.

Ross also fails to add anything constructive:

I spent time at the Fredericksburg National Park Service researching the event, and discovered several legitimate facts and names surrounding Kirkland.  As I dove deeper into the story, I was lead to names and organizations such as The Daughters of Confederacy–The Kershaw Chapter, Mac Wycoff, Donald Pfanz, [and] Michael Aubrecht. These guys had done their research and committed years to the subject of Kirkland and the Civil War.

If there is an argument here as to why the postwar accounts ought to be accepted than make it.  Anything else is nothing less than a distraction.  There is also nothing on the website for the film that would support a specific reading of the evidence.  As Ross makes clear, however, “This film is not as much about proving the validity of the story as much as it is, well, simply telling the story.”

It’s about telling the kind of story that Americans want to hear about their Civil War.  We want to think of ourselves and even our Civil War as a reflection of our exceptionalism as Americans, that even in the heat of battle we can transcend the worst form of violence to discover our true character.  We want to believe that “Kirkland and his comrades were trying to sleep” as the Union soldiers lay trapped and wounded on the slopes below Marye’s Heights.  We want to believe that Kirkland’s “conscience took over” and that the cries of the wounded “touches his heart” even if there is absolutely no reliable evidence as to what he felt and believed.

Aubrecht sums it up beautifully in one of the trailer videos when he suggests that for one hour Kirkland “has essentially stopped the entire Civil War in Virginia.”  There is something very comforting in that thought, but it is also disturbing and inaccurate on a number of levels.  Whether it was one hour or fifteen minutes is irrelevant.  It obscures the fact that the battle of Fredericksburg extended beyond the confines of the Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights.  It ignores the suffering of the civilians who were displaced from their homes as a result of the Union bombardment and sacking of the town.  Beyond Fredericksburg, it ignores the suffering of Virginia farmers and civilians who had to deal with the hardships of war for over a year and it ignores the dangers faced on the part of many slaves, who risked their lives to escape to Union lines.  More importantly, such a claim tells us little about Kirkland, who we are to believe stands above this culture of death and suffering.  The narrative reinforces such a view in the continued resistance that Kirkland faced from his own officers when the idea of aiding his enemy was first suggested.  I want to know how many Union soldiers Kirkland killed before and after this incident, not because I am attracted to bloodthirsty stories of killing, but because he was a soldier in a horrible war.  And don’t tell us that Kirkland and his comrades had trouble sleeping following the battle without discussing the fact that there were surely soldiers in the ranks who slepped just fine and even believed that the Union soldiers deserved their fate.

In short, this story makes the war palatable for many and allows us to celebrate it without having to come to terms with its horrors.  We don’t need more of this, we need less of it, especially at a time when we have thousands of men and women in uniform fighting in Afghanistan.  We need stories that remind us of the physical and psychological effects of war rather than stories that give us a reason to celebrate war and ourselves.

Anticipating Richard Kirkland’s Big Day

This morning I was interviewed by Mike Zitz of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star concerning the Saturday premiere of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a movie about Richard Kirkland.  I made it clear that I could not comment on the movie beyond the few videos previews and other assorted postings that I’ve read on the movie website.  We talked for about 30 minutes and I confined most of my thoughts to what this story tells us about how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War.  As far as I am concerned there isn’t much to talk about regarding the factual basis of the story since there are no wartime accounts.  If I remember correctly, the earliest account is dated around 1880.  I am going to hold off commenting further until the article is published on Thursday.

For now, consider this little video, which touches on some of the same themes in the Kirkland story.  In 1913 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received a letter from a veteran of the 15th Alabama concerning the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

Here we have another story where in the heat of battle the compassion of a Confederate soldiers saved the life of his enemy.  Of course, there is no way to confirm this story.  In the end, however, the truth of the matter isn’t as interesting as what this tells us about how Americans chose to remember the war in 1913 – the same year as the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.  Let’s not ask how the soldier in question knew that the man he was writing to in 1913 was the same individual that he remembered in 1863.  I’m not even sure we can confirm that the author of the letter was, in fact, a veteran of the 15th Alabama.  Like I said, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that someone decided to write to Chamberlain 50 years after the battle and acknowledge an act of compassion.  What matters in reference to the Kirkland story is that someone decided to write a letter that highlighted the compassion of another soldier in the heat of battle.

Governor McDonnell to Speak in Fredericksburg to Mark Memorial Day

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will mark Memorial Day with an address at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, which contains the graves of roughly 15,000 Union soldiers.  Over at Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy offers a brief history of the earliest Memorial Day observances, which were organized by the town’s African Americans.  This continued until the early 1880s when Confederate veterans accepted an invitation to take part with the stipulation that African Americans be excluded.

It’s worth asking, in light of April’s controversial Confederate History Month declaration, why the governor has chosen to mark this important day in a Union cemetery.  I am curious as to what he will say.  In fact, I think I may attend.  What do you think?

It’s More Than Just A Historically Inaccurate Wall

If you are not reading Mysteries and Conundrums than you are missing one of the most interesting new Civil War blogs to come down the pike in some time.  The blog is maintained by the historical staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which is led by John Hennessy.  The gang has been posting on a regular basis and the stories are absolutely fascinating. Much of it has focused on the analysis of images of the town and battlefield and the high-resolution photographs will leave you staring for quite some time.

The most recent post by Eric Mink addresses the history of the famous Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights and its construction by a segregated group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.  The post goes on to address the concerns within the NPS and local white community surrounding the presence of these men as well as the steps taken to segregate park facilities, including picnic areas and bathrooms.  I encourage you to read the entire post.

Anyone who has studied the battle in detail knows that the stone wall is not an accurate representation of the original wall, though recent archaeological work has shown that it does sit on the original foundation.  This raises the interesting question of its status given the NPS’s recent work to return their battlefields to as close to their appearance at the time of the war as possible.  We’ve seen this with the return of viewsheds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a recent decision to dismantle a New Deal bathroom between Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.

I don’t believe that there is a general rule to be applied at every battlefield; rather, I tend to think that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis and in a way that will enhance the interpretation of the actual site.  While I’ve walked the area around Marye’s Heights multiple times with students, family, and friends, I find it very difficult to imagine the fighting that took place there in December 1862 and May 1863.  The development of the town from the area along the river up to the very foot of the battlefield makes it very difficult for me to understand the tactical ebb and flow of the battle as well as the area’s topographical significance.   What I do understand is that the Confederate position there was pretty damn good.  I get that.

As far as I am concerned the stone wall constructed by the CCC ought to be preserved and properly interpreted.  While it would be interesting to see a historically accurate stone wall at Marye’s Heights, it’s added benefit would not outweigh the importance of the CCC wall.  Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument.  Now, before you go off the deep end keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we do so, only that it does function as an obstacle in that regard.  When I bring students to the monument we talk very little about the actual battle as opposed to the culture of the Civil War Centennial, which goes much further in explaining the monument’s presence than anything Kirkland did or didn’t do.

A new wall would not drastically change the stories that I share with my students when we visit.  On the other hand Eric Mink’s post now allows me to share a significant story of the battlefield that will dramatically expand their understanding of the battle and its legacies.  As I discussed in a talk that I gave at Fredericksburg on the anniversary of the battle in 2009 I strive to give my students a broad understanding of the significance and legacy of our Civil War battlefields.  Here we have a major battle that took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Roughly seventy years later that very same spot is being maintained by a segregated group of black CCC workers for the enjoyment and education of a predominantly white audience.  Some of these men may have been the children and grandchildren of slaves.

The men who fought at Fredericksburg created their own meaning, but we should not lose sight of the fact that subsequent management of a landscape continues its history and infuses it with additional significance and meaning.  Think of the monuments that were erected at the turn of the twentieth century.  These objects over time attain their own unique historical significance.  With this wall we are presented with another object of historical significance and an interpretive opportunity that ought not to be passed over.

[Photograph from Mysteries and Conundrums/FSNMP]