It doesn’t get much better that spending five days with thirteen enthusiastic students at some of our most important Civil War battlefields. After flying into Washington, D.C. on Sunday we hit the ground running by heading directly to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Our tour began at Chatham, where we discussed the history of the town of Fredericksburg and the difficult choices that its residents were forced to make during the 1860 election and secession winter. This was also an ideal location at which to situate the 20th Massachusetts Infantry as the battle commenced on December 11.
Once across the river we parked along Sophia Street, where we discussed the street fighting that the 20th Mass. experienced as well as its participation in the looting of the town. After a quick lunch we headed up to Marye’s Heights to discuss the December 13 battle and the role of the 20th Mass. as it moved to engage North Carolinians along the Stone Wall. Continue reading →
Today in my survey class we examined newspaper editorials from across the country in the wake of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. The goal of the lesson was to learn how to interpret newspapers and to get a sense of the extent of the sectional divide over Brown’s actions. Students tracked assessments of Brown that bridged North and South and ways in which they diverged. Even more interesting was watching them come to terms with the fact that not everyone in each region agreed on what Brown’s actions meant. Students struggled quite a bit with an editorial from Nashville, Tennessee. Continue reading →
Just returned from a weekend in Lake Placed, New York where I took part in a conference sponsored by a small grassroots organization called John Brown Lives! The conference brought together historians, teachers, students, and activists working to end modern day slave trafficking. It was an incredibly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating weekend. Many of you are no doubt aware that John Brown’s home and his burial site are in Lake Placid hence the name of the organization.
We talked mainly about the history and memory of emancipation from a number of different perspectives. David Blight talked about emancipation during the centennial and sesquicentennial; Margaret Washington focused on female abolitionists; and Franny Nudleman led a fascinating discussion about how the Emancipation Proclamation is discussed in history textbooks. I contributed by hosting a public screening of the movie Glory that was attended by roughly 100 people on Friday evening. We discussed how the movie depicts black soldiers as well as its interpretation of emancipation and the following day I led a discussion about specific scenes in the movie that went into much more detail.
The most interesting talk by far came from Ken Morris, who is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and the co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. Ken’s presentation on modern day slave trafficking and his current campaign called “100 Days to Freedom” was incredibly inspiring. You can learn more about it in this cute video that was produced by his two daughters. I encourage teachers to get their students involved. It’s an incredible way to bridge the present and the past in the classroom.
Since many of us stayed at a beautiful private home on the lake the conversations went well into the wee hours of the night. Needless to say I am very tired, but I return home energized and with the mental juices flowing. Thanks so much to Martha Swan, who invited me to take part this weekend.
This event has been a long time in the making and I signed on to take part when I was still living in Virginia. John Brown Lives! is a small organization led by Martha Swan, which focuses on public and educational outreach around issues related to freedom and oppression in history and in our world today. Freedom Then, Freedom Now offers a little something for teachers, students, and anyone else who is interested in the history and legacy of emancipation. The list of speakers and subjects to be discussed looks very interesting and David Blight will deliver the keynote address. I am going to host a screening of Glory for the community and then work with a group of teachers on how they can use it in the classroom. It promises to be a fun weekend. Continue reading →
Every once in a while you will read about free blacks petitioning local or state government to become a slave. In the wrong hands such accounts reflect a lingering Lost Cause view that slavery was benign. Why else would a free black individual choose bondage? Many of these requests were made in the late antebellum period following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Many southern states, especially in the Deep South, worried about the effects of the raid on their black populations, both free and enslaved. In addition to worrying about the ramifications of the Brown raid memories of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection were easily recalled. Visitors from the North were suspected of inciting blacks and were often forced to leave. The smallest acts of violence and arson by blacks were met with swift and brutal punishment to prevent what many perceived to be the beginning of a more general uprising. In many localities this response included a severe crackdown on the movement and rights of free blacks. Free blacks already occupied a precarious position in the South, but the increased focus on their movement may help to explain why some chose slavery over freedom.
I guess we should have anticipated such a move on this sesquicentennial of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. It’s an indication that Brown’s reputation has taken a significant turn since the end of the 1960s and that even Virginia may have a different outlook (at least northern Virginia) on this crucial moment on the eve of the the Civil War. While I don’t know much about David Reynolds, I am surprised to find his name attached to this project. As many of you know, Reynolds teaches at CUNY and is the author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, which is one of the best of the recent crop of Brown biographies. Reynolds has not issued a formal statement, but you can read his thoughts in the following news article.
Let’s remember that many Americans we honor had as many or more flaws in their character and behavior: Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, Columbus has been understandably accused of genocide, and Lincoln shared the racial prejudice of his time and long wanted to deport blacks once they were freed.
I have no interest in signing this petition, but it is available here. Interestingly, the Online poll has supporters of a pardon far ahead. I’ve never had an interest in demonizing or celebrating John Brown. That said, I’ve always found those studies that emphasized some kind of psychological imbalance to be completely off the mark. It’s nice to see historians such as Reynolds finally work to place Brown’s plan in its proper context by analyzing the extent to which his plan and actions were influenced by slave rebellions in the Caribbean and elsewhere. That we’ve spent so much time arguing that he was “crazy” tells us much more about the difficulty subsequent generations have had coming to terms with Brown.
If you happen to live in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry I encourage you to attend the inaugural event of West Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. The event will include a panel discussion titled “Madman, Martyr, or Myth: John Brown’s Portrayal in Film” and will include clips from films and miniseries, including, among others, the “Santa Fe Trail” and “North and South”. Each clip will be followed by panel comments and discussion. Dr. Mark Snell will moderate the panel, which will consist of Dr. Charles Niemeyer of the USMC University; Ron Maxwell, director of “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals”; Dr. Walter Powell, a cultural historian who also is adjunct professor of historic preservation at Shepherd University and past president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association; and Beth White, adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Charleston and a member of the WV Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. The event takes place from 6-7:30 pm this Friday on the second floor of the John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry NHP. It is free and open to the public but seating is very limited. The WV Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission also will have an information table set up in HFNHP on Friday and Saturday.
For more information re: upcoming events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Brown’s Raid check out the NPS/Harpers Ferry website.