I’ve taken a great deal of heat for much of my commentary on how Civil War battlefield preservation is typically framed for public consumption. The most recent example can be found here. This morning I read John Hennessy’s description of a recent NPS event that marked the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Some background for the event:
The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996. We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.
Unfortunately, this year’s picks are based on a slightly shorter list of books than in the past owing to the amount of time I spent over the summer revising my book manuscript on the battle of the Crater. However, that didn’t prevent me from reading a fairly large number of books that are worth acknowledging at the end of another year. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to read, comment, and consider what I have to say. I have no plans to quit blogging. In fact, the popularity of this site continues to grow and continues to open up new opportunities for me that I could not have imagined just a few short years ago. The coming year promises to be another good one on both the professional and personal fronts. I hope all of you are enjoying the Holiday Season.
Best Civil War Blog: This was one of the easiest choices that I’ve had to make in this category since starting this list. While there are plenty of good Civil War blogs to choose from only a select few stand out to me as important resources for both scholars and general enthusiasts. John Hennessy’s Mysteries and Conundrums is hands down the most important Civil War blog in our little corner of the blogosphere. M&C is the group blog of the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and while Hennessy is the most visible writer other contributors include Noel Harrison, Mac Wycoff, and Eric Mink. Their blog offers a behind-the-scenes look at the complex process involved in interpreting some of America’s most sacred and controversial historic sites. The site offers interested readers a primer on how public history is done and it does so by engaging the public as an integral part of the process. No other website or even published study has taught me more over the past year about the history of the Fredericksburg area, public history, and Civil War memory. Thanks to John and the rest of the staff for inviting us inside, showing us how it is done, and for providing a blueprint that other historic sites can employ.
Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?
As a history teacher, who offers an entire elective on the Civil War, I can relate to the temptation that John describes. I constantly struggle with this question when discussing battles and the experiences of the common soldiers. My biggest problem is a strong belief that having never experienced a battlefield/combat I am simply not qualified to give voice to it. I usually feel like an impostor when doing so. There are a few movies that I’ve used with some success in trying to give life to a Civil War battlefield, but even here I am uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment as to their accuracy. I often wonder what my students are thinking when watching these scenes. Is it simply entertainment? Are they glorifying the event and thus minimizing the true brutality that it attempts to represent? And I wonder, as John does, whether I am feeding my students’ “morbid curiosity.”
This is not to suggest that I steer clear entirely from the subject either; rather, I almost always allow the soldiers to speak for themselves along with utilizing other primary sources such as photographs. The letters offer windows into an experience that most of us will thankfully never have to encounter. My students will have their own emotional response following the reading of a letter or the viewing of a photograph. As a teacher I do my best to guide them intellectually to a place where they can achieve some level of understanding that they can take with them after they leave the course. Even that level of understanding must be student driven. And in a democratic nation it is essential that we do our best to understand and appreciate the consequences of war for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole. Most of us sailed through the last 8 years of war without having to pay much attention at all. My students were certainly not engaged.
But isn’t that the danger here? As skeptical as I am about my ability to properly teach the subject of war isn’t the failure to do so to be left with a generation that is simply unprepared to think critically or emotionally about the consequences of war?
Anyway, head on over to John’s site for a much more interesting discussion.
Congratulations to John Hennessy of the NPS and Sara Poore of the Fredericksburg Area Museum for organizing a wonderful event yesterday that included a rare opportunity to tour the grounds of Brompton as well as listen to historians George Rable and William Freehling. More than 600 people attended the event at the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church, which is quite an accomplishment given the beautiful weather as well as the subject. Read John’s thoughts about the day’s proceedings at Fredericksburg Remembered. John and Sara are two of the hardest working public historians in the business and I hope that the people of Fredericksburg appreciate their commitment to organizing programs for the local community that are both entertaining and educational.
One of the more interesting moments took place during the Q&A following John’s talk on the secession debate that took place in Fredericksburg. A member of the audience suggested that the lack of slave rebellions during the antebellum period suggested to him that slaves may have, in fact been content. No surprise that John handled the question directly and with the sensitivity that it deserved. What surprised me, however, was that after John finished with his response a large percentage of the audience clapped. The response suggests that these questions are no longer appropriate to ask. Yes, we can have serious discussions about the complexity of the master-slave relationship, but thankfully we seem to have moved beyond being able to suggest that people were content being slaves.
Thanks to everyone involved for organizing this event.
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”→