Tag Archives: John Hennessy

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

Where Should the New Chancellorsville Vistor Center Be Located?

Note: It looks like I did a poor job of reading Eric’s post.  For some reason I was under the impression that there were plans to build a new VC.  That said, I have heard talk about the possibility of a new location so let’s proceed with that in mind.

The new group blog, Mysteries and Conundrums, authored by NPS historians at Fredericksburg has quickly become my favorite Civil War site.  John Hennessy and the gang have done a fantastic job of sharing the challenges associated with interpreting and preserving some of our most important Civil War ground.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hennessy’s last post in which he asks readers to consider a name change to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.  Many of the responses reflect deeply held views, but I commend Hennessy for his continued commitment to asking the tough questions.

Eric Mink’s latest post provides some interesting background information on the Chancellorsville Visitor Center; it looks like his next post will let us in on the decision-making process that went into the decision on the location of a new visitor center.  [Update: Just as this was published Eric Mink posted his second installment.]  I’ve brought students to Chancellorsville for the past 8 years and since I am pretty familiar with the battlefield I thought I would take a shot at suggesting a new location.  The best place for a new visitor center would be on ground that covers the fighting that took place on May 3, 1863.

I’ve been bringing students to Chancellorsville for the past eight years and so I am fairly familiar with the ground and have thought quite a bit about how to approach a battlefield tour.  We spend about 5-6 hours touring various sites, beginning at the present VC and proceeding to the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the final meeting spot between Lee and Jackson.  From there we walk a bit of the original road that Jackson used for his flank march and discuss tactics and the difficulties associated with fighting in the Wilderness.  We stop at the Flank March spot to discuss ethnicity and the Union 11th Corps along with the effects of Jackson’s attack.  From there we drive back where I do a play-by-play of the events that led to Jackson’s wounding; it’s a narrative that closely follows Bob Krick’s brilliant analysis of this important moment in the battle.  Finally, we make our way over the Fairview where we eat our lunch and discuss the events of May 3.  While there we discuss Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which helps us to get at issues related to soldier life.

Continue reading

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]

Being Civil War Memory

Kevin Levin and John HennessyIt 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.

Commemorating Fredericksburg

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.

Continue reading