Tag Archives: Museum of the Confederacy

A Response To Edward Sebesta

Back in September I responded to the first part of a multi-post essay by Edward Sebesta concerning the Museum of the Confederacy.  A few weeks back Sebesta responded on his blog.  I admit that characterizing Sebesta’s essay as a “rant” was a poor choice of words, but I maintain that it is a poorly researched essay.  The fundamental problem with his essay can be seen in a NYTs review of the museum by Edward Rothstein:

But if there is any success in the reconciliation of regional history and national history, it will not come easily. The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”

That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.

But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.

Satellite museums are being planned at other Civil War sites in Virginia. The museum’s scholarly resources are being promoted, and nostalgic trappings are being shed. Some of the institution’s tours focus on traditional subjects like Confederate foreign policy, but others examine relationships between free and enslaved blacks in Civil War Richmond, or discuss the lives of servants in the Confederate White House.

Rothstein nails in four paragraphs what Sebesta is no closer to understanding in a 4-part essay and that is that any evaluation of the MOC must be sensitive to its unique history, first as shrine to the Confederacy and more recently as a museum.  Admittedly, the line between a shrine and a museum is blurry and what lessons one walks away with will depend on a whole host of factors.  What is difficult to dispute, however, is that the MOC has undergone significant changes over the past few decades and that its evolution continues right through the sesquicentennial.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or that he has taken the time to interview some of the people mentioned such as John Coski and Waite Rawls III.  I have no doubt that Sebesta would have learned quite a bit by sitting down with the museum staff to learn about how they work to satisfy the expectations of various segments of its broader community.  In addition, while Sebesta is fond of quoting his favorite “neo-Confederate” sources he never comes to terms with the fact that the scholarly community has embraced the MOC.  The museum’s reflection of recent scholarship can be seen in both the books that they give prizes to as well as the quality of recent exhibits.

As I said in my initial post, a study of the MOC as it relates to public history and historical memory would make for a fascinating dissertation and/or book.  However, such a careful study is impossible to undertake when your paramount goal is to uncover “neo-Confederates” at every turn.

 

The Confederacy Has Risen Again

Sketch of MOC exhibit at Appomattox

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this from those folks who proclaim themselves defenders of “Southern Heritage.”  Many of these people are preoccupied with silly battles surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.  Anyone who follows this nauseating debate can see that the pro-flag forces are on the losing side of history.  Whether they are willing to acknowledge it or not, the majority of Americans do not want to see the Confederate flag in public spaces and supported with public dollars.  As the title of the post suggests, however, there is reason to celebrate.

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Calling Out Edward Sebesta and Calling On James Loewen

Museum of the Confederacy's Fish

Update: James Loewen responds…well…sort of.

Since Edward Sebesta recently came up in a previous post I decided to check out his blog earlier today.  Some of you may remember that not too long ago Sebesta publicly declared that he would not accept an award from the Museum of the Confederacy for his co-edited book with James Loewen, titled The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”, which had been submitted by their publisher for the Jefferson Davis Award.  Why?  According to Sebesta, the MOC’s mission is to further the”Neo-Confederate” agenda.  By accepting their award Sebesta believes that he would be legitimizing the museum as a legitimate historical institution.  Yes, this is quite bizarre, but it gets even better.  At the time Sebesta promised that he would explain his stance in a more detailed essay, which is exactly what I came across at his blog today.  The post includes a link to a 4-part essay that was published at the Black Commentator. I am going to leave it to you to read through as I simply do not have the patience to do it.  It is an incredibly incoherent rant and as far as I can tell there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or talked with its museum staff.

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A Virginia Fourth Grader’s Civil War

General Winfield Scott

I came across this question not too long ago on my Facebook News Feed.  It was posted by a well-known Civil War historian, who was helping his 4th grader study for the Virginia Standards of Learning Test:

Name the roles of the following
1) White Virginians
2) Freed African Americans
3) American Indians

Choices:
A) Supported the Confederacy
B) Fought for the Confederacy to protect their rights
C) Did not take sides during the Civil War.

Let me know how you did because I still can’t figure out the right answer.  This past week I had the opportunity to work with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers in Virginia Beach.  It presents a unique challenge since I do not have children of my own and my work as a history teacher is on the high school level.  Even more challenging is the fact that many of these teachers are not trained in history.  That’s not necessarily a problem given the level at which they are working at with the kids and the skills they are working hard to impart.  However, we should expect that every attempt is being made to provide these teachers with curricular materials that reflect the latest scholarship and that allows students to see as much of the richness of their state’s history as possible.

If this question reflects what our kids are being taught at this level than we’ve got a lot to worry about.  In fact, if I have the right answers the question clearly reflects the content of Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present in which she suggests that slaves supported the Confederacy in large numbers.  As bad as that is it could be argued that the assumption that all Virginians supported the Confederacy is also a gross distortion of the past.  At one point during my teaching session we were discussing Robert E. Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army.  I brought up General Winfield Scott’s name as another example of a Virginian, who struggled with the same decision and my audience largely stared back in silence.  Scott was one of the most important Americans by 1860 and he was a Virginian.  Please don’t tell me that 4th graders can’t understand the concept of a Unionist.  I don’t see how you can understand the war in Virginia without it.

On a related note I also learned that public schools in Virginia Beach are not allowed to visit the Museum of the Confederacy.  No one could give me an answer beyond the vague rumblings over their name, which have plagued it over the past few years.  I made it crystal clear that the MOC is truly one of our most important historical institutions and that they should be taking full advantage of what it has to offer.   Here we are at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Virginia and we are still teaching our kids not only an outdated version of the Civil War, but one that somehow manages to fall short of the cognitive capacity of 4th graders.  Of course, I have no doubt that there are teachers, who are doing a first-rate job in their classrooms, but these little signs are not encouraging.

If the above question is what passes for historical knowledge in our public schools than I suggest we just bag the entire project and devote the time to math and science.

Our children deserve better.

 

The Edward Sebesta Circus Continues

Thanks to my readers, who are forwarding me links relevant to Edward Sebesta’s recent announcement that he does not want and will refuse the Museum of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis Prize for best book on Confederate history if it is awarded.  Turns out that Sebesta is blanketing listservs seeking advice on how best to proceed.  Here is an example from H-Public:

Unfortunately the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) wants to consider giving my newest book an award. This is a book designed to expose the real nature of the Confederacy and the neo-Confederate movement as being about slavery and white supremacy.  No doubt they think that by giving this award they can co-opt James Loewen and myself and position themselves as different from the rest of the neo-Confederates.

As you know, institutions give awards because by honoring others they honor themselves. I don’t want to honor the Museum of the Confederacy, I don’t want my name or my book be used to legitimize them.

John Coski has approached my co-editor and asked for copies of the book, and despite my strenuous objections copies are going to be sent.  I also wrote five certified letters, four to the judges telling them that I don’t want the award and one with copies of the other four letters sent to the Director of the MOC. One would think this would result in my book being thrown out. However, I got an email from Coski saying basically I had no say in the matter.

I am asking for advice on how to prevent this award from happening. The two strategies I have adopted so far are:

1.    Make my opposition public so that they are more likely to reject my book.

2.    Use this consideration of my book as an opportunity to make my criticisms of the Museum of the Confederacy more widely known.

And there is information on the MOC. A speech by Ludwell Johnson III, given at the Museum of the Confederacy, on his being made a Fellow of the Museum and reprinted in the 3rd quarter 1994 issue of “Southern Partisan” is an appalling denigration of African Americans and African American scholarship. Their book “Before Freedom Came” is explained as a rebuke to Carol Moseley-Braun in his speech.

I think that they still give a Jefferson Davis award is appalling. The man was vile. I read a section on the congressional record where they wanted to help out Africans who were on board a captured slave ship and Jefferson Davis is simply appalling in his opposition to helping out these poor persons sweltering in a slave ship off the coast of Florida.

I am going to write up some essays about the MOC and their activities. I have a file which I am going to review. Perhaps some of the members of this listserve would like to write essays on the MOC.  Again, I am open to some advice to make sure this award doesn’t come to my book. I feel it would be a stain on my reputation. Letter follows my name.

I still have no idea why Sebesta has taken this stance.  As I stated in my last post he seems to be ignorant of the good work that the museum has done to further a scholarly understanding of the Civil War – the very thing that Sebesta and Loewen claim to support.  If the MOC was nothing more than an extension of some “Neo-Confederate” organization than why would they consider his book?  Even more bizarre is the reference to their publication, Before Freedom Came, which I am quite familiar with and have used in the classroom on numerous occasions.  It’s obvious to me that Sebesta does not own a copy nor is there any indication of its contents.  This is an edited collection that includes essays by Drew G. Faust, John Michael Vlach Charles Joyner, Deborah Gray White, David R. Goldfield, and Theresa A. Singleton.  Anyone familiar with the historiography of slavery and the history of the South would be hard pressed to describe these individuals as promoting anything other than a scholarly view of the subject.

As far as I am concerned Sebesta is doing little more than engaging in the slandering of an institution that deserves our full support.  I understand that James Loewen will accept the award, if given, but in the name of education and the promotion of scholarly history Loewen ought to reign in his erratic co-editor.  This must be incredibly embarrassing for him.