I heard about this during my presentation at Fredericksburg this past Sunday. The day before re-enactors from the 28th Massachusetts and the 47th Virginia marked the 146th anniversary of the battle with a historic handshake over the famous stone wall at Marye’s Heights. It’s arguably the most powerful example of our Civil War community’s obsession with the themes of reunion and reconciliation. I don’t really have an opinion about it one way or the other. The NPS decided to allow it and I trust their judgment. In the end, I think the gesture reflects our interests more than the soldiers themselves or anything having to do with history. It’s more about our needs. But it does point to a question of what these men and women who don uniforms claim to be reenacting. If they are reenacting Civil War soldiers than it seems to me they run the risk of being characterized as emotional farbs. These guys worry about getting the outward appearance just right, but what about the emotional outlook of the Civil War soldier? Where is the bitterness and outward expressions of anger? What exactly are you reenacting at the stone wall?
It finally hit me early yesterday morning why I felt just a little uncomfortable about giving the commemorative talk on the Fredericksburg battlefield. I am used to addressing audiences – either in the form of an academic panel discussion or informal roundtable setting – about the past from a detached perspective. More specifically, I am used to exploring how battlefields have been commemorated and remembered by others, and trying my best to understand the factors, which have come to shape various commemorative forms as well as our popular memory. Yesterday’s presentation collapsed that distinction. I’m quite confident that those of you who have followed this blog for some time will not be surprised by the overarching theme of my presentation, but now that I think about it, there is something special about being able to present it on an actual battlefield. In a sense, my words are now part of the commemorative history of that particular battlefield stretching back to the war itself. I like that.
Despite losing my place at one point owing to the fact that my hands were shaking from the cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Most of the 200 people who attended arrived as part of NPS historian Frank O’Reilly’s yearly tour from the downtown area up to Marye’s Heights. I would have liked to have tagged along, but there can be no complaints when the alternative is a personal tour of the downtown area with John Hennessy.
Photos from the weekend can be found at flickr.
Today I am giving the keynote address as part of a ceremony commemorating the 146th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Thanks to my friend and fellow historian John Hennessy for inviting me to take part on this important day. I can’t say this was the easiest presentation to write, but I am fairly comfortable with the final version. As always, your critical comments are appreciated.
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.
I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.
On Wednesday Clint Schemmer, of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, interviewed me about my upcoming talk on Sunday. I did my best to give him a taste of some of the themes that I will touch on even as I continue to write and edit. Although the assignment has been a challenge, I am looking forward to the ceremony. I am also looking forward to meeting many of you who have written to say that you will be in attendance. Here is an excerpt from today’s article that focuses on our interview. For those of you who will not be able to make the event, or who have chosen to go elsewhere that day, I will post my talk on Sunday for your consideration
During the keynote address, Charlottesville resident Kevin Levin, editor of the popular blog Civil War Memory, said he will “try to push the envelope a bit.” He does the same during tours of Fredericksburg with his high school students. “To visit a battlefield is a chance to look at causes, consequences and bigger meanings.”
“Visiting a battlefield should not be easy,” Levin said. “When we go to these places, it’s up to us, as Americans, to try and make those connections and try to understand why this happened–that for four years, Americans killed one another. We have an obligation to try to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, to deal with issues like race, like slavery, or Jim Crow.” He noted that the Battle of Fredericksburg occurred a few weeks before President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, something that many of the men who fought at Fredericksburg were keenly aware of.
“I won’t be talking about anything the soldiers weren’t themselves talking about,” he said. “This discussion that people today have–about what is the proper scope of battlefield interpretation–is a debate more about ourselves than the history itself.” America’s Civil War magazine has lauded Levin’s writing for its “humanistic insight and scholarly precision.” History News Network recognized it with its 2007 Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog. Levin teaches American history at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, and writes and lectures extensively on the war.
Tonight my wife and I will be driving to Fredericksburg for a “Gala Reception” in celebration of the grand opening of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. The museum opens tomorrow and includes a a schedule of talks and other activities throughout the day. Our good friend Sara Poore, who is the director of education for the museum, has been working tirelessly over the past year to get the program up and running as well as the exhibits. We are looking forward to helping her and the rest of the staff celebrate this joyous occasion. The weather should be nice this weekend so if you live in the Fredericksburg area make sure you pay the museum a visit.
Click here for a news item in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.
Note: Next week I will be back in Fredericksburg to deliver the keynote address for the NPS’s commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.