It’s always nice to have a decent writing session given how rare they are for me. I am close to finishing up a magazine article that explores how veterans from Massachusetts framed the war in what I would like to think were fairly local places. For example, I am looking at private reminiscences, unit histories, some G.A.R. events, and monument dedications as opposed to more high profile events such as reunions between Confederate and Union veterans and other public events involving political leaders and other national figures. It seems to me that when you focus on the former there are far fewer expressions of reunion and reconciliation. In fact, you will find some powerful examples of individuals who explicitly see themselves as standing up against the broader trend of reconciliation that had taken hold by the beginning of the twentieth century. This is a narrative that has all but been lost in a collective memory that prefers stories of former enemies embracing one another at Appomattox and beyond. I haven’t decided where I am going to send it, but I hope you have a chance to read it at some point soon.
Here is an interesting story from my neck of the woods. The Worcester Grand Army of the Republic Board of Trustees voted recently to return three captured Confederate flags to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, N.C. The flags were captured at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina on March 14, 1862, by two Union divisions manned with residents of Central Massachusetts. This latest story follows a much longer trend of reconciliation gestures between the descendants of Civil War veterans. [I will be speaking at the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable on October 11.]
This past Friday I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Framingham History Center located in the Edgell Memorial Library, which was built after the war to honor Union veterans. The center’s director, Annie Murphy, was kind enough to give me a personal tour of their new Civil War exhibit. It’s not the most elaborate exhibit around, but they do a nice job of highlighting was is clearly an extensive collection of artifacts and documents. It includes General George H. Gordon’s coat, a buts of the general sculpted by Daniel Chester French and a battle worn flag of the 13th Massachusetts. If you are in the area you should make it a point to check it out.
A few of my readers have requested that I comment on ongoing and recent exhibits in my new neck of the woods that concentrate on the history of slavery and the slave trade. I assume they are planning family vacations north of the Mason-Dixon Line so I am more than happy to comply. Their requests, however, seem to be couched in the assumption that historical institutions in New England and elsewhere are actively ignoring this dark and complex subject in American history. Nothing could be further from the truth so I hope this short post will alleviate their concerns and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for an exciting and educational trip north.
One of the things that I hope my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory does is find a place in a growing literature that challenges the reunion and reconciliation school of Civil War Memory. It’s beautifully expressed by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memoryand suggests that white northerners and southerners eventually brushed aside a memory of emancipation for one that embraced a shared history as well as a set of values that allowed for a swift and relatively painless sectional reconciliation. There is a certain amount of truth to this story. The story of the Crater, however, simply does not follow this broad narrative outline. The veterans of the Virginia brigade engaged in bitter feuds relating to the battle and the role of William Mahone during the few short years of Readjuster control. Mahone learned that there were limits to which he could utilize his military career to advance a political agenda that advanced the cause of the state’s black population. And while numerous meetings between former enemies took place on the battlefield, white southerners never adopted a language of reconciliation when commemorating the battle. This was a decisive Confederate victory that highlighted the fighting prowess and character of their own. The presence of a black division was simply too much for many of the veterans to forget even at the beginning of the twentieth century.