This Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s unsuccessful assault at Battery Wagner outside of Charleston. Though the amount of attention focused on this event pales in comparison with the recent commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg, the event constitutes the “high water-mark” of the black soldier experience in the Civil War and in our popular memory. This is due in large part to the success and continued popularity of the movie, “Glory”. On the one hand, the movie obscures the rich history of those black men who fought for the United States during the war beyond the 54th, but it also opens a door that will hopefully be exploited by those involved in this commemoration over the course of the week. Continue reading “Commemorating the 54th Massachusetts in the Heart of the Rebellion”
For many visitors to Civil War battlefields overseen by the National Park Service the orientation movie provides a much needed overview of the relevant history and a clear statement as to why it is important. Unfortunately, many of these movies are out of date, though in recent years individual parks have worked hard to bring their stories in line with more recent scholarship. Shiloh National Military Park is one such example. The first words spoken in their new movie remind visitors that United States soldiers were engaged in nothing less than the suppression of a rebellion.
I’ve never been to Shiloh. In fact, I’ve not visited any of the battlefields outside of the Eastern Theater apart from the Mobile area. In a few weeks I will be co-leading a group of history teachers from Nashville to Washington, D.C. as part of what I assume is one of the last Teaching American History sponsored programs. I will be leading a few tours in the Virginia – D.C. area, but the 10-day trip will finally bring me to places like Franklin, Fort Negley, Stones River, and Chickamauga. I can’t wait.
Donald Gilliland’s article about whether battlefield reenactments are appropriate is making the rounds. The author does a pretty good job of watering down Peter Carmichael’s thoughts in a way that reinforce some of the same tired and meaningless battle lines between academics and amateur historians/reenactors. Anyone familiar with Pete’s views on the subject can pinpoint what is problematic with Gilliland’s piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been misquoted or have spent a hour on the phone with a newspaper reporter only to find that he/she used a small snippet taken completely out of context.
Unfortunately, what Gilliland missed in his rush to frame this debate as part of our larger “culture wars” is that the National Park Service has been consistent in steering clear of endorsing battlefield reenactments from the beginning of the sesquicentennial and has made those reasons very clear. This stands in sharp contrast with its policy during the centennial commemorations during the early 1960s. Continue reading “On the Reenacting-Go-Round”
First, I wanted to thank all of my friends and other acquaintances for the continuous stream of posts, tweets, videos, etc. from Gettysburg. Although I was just there last week it was hard not to feel just a bit left out of all the excitement that has transpired over the past few days. Reading your thoughts and looking at your photographs was the next best thing to being there. I also wanted to take the opportunity to thank all the employees of the National Park Service at Gettysburg for their hard work. I know many of the Park Service staff at Gettysburg and can speak firsthand to their dedication to making this event both educational and meaningful.
There is a lot I could say about the past three days and perhaps I will at some point, but for now a very straightforward observation. Apart from a few exceptions I came across next to nothing that smacked of the typical Lost Cause rhetoric. In terms of battlefield interpretation we have the NPS to thank for that. News coverage was decidedly focused on the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought the battle and when it came to drawing meaning from the battle most people, not surprisingly, gravitated to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Granted, not everyone arrived at the same meaning and in the case of Doris Kearns Goodwin I would suggest she went off the deep end in her framing of the battle’s significance. Continue reading “A Few Parting Shots at the Gettysburg 150th”
Tomorrow I hope to finish up an essay that I was asked to write for one of the Civil War journals over a year ago about the the influence of digital technologies on how we write and research history and how that has fueled the myth of the black Confederate soldier. At the end of the essay I take a moment to suggest ways that academic and public historians as well as history educators generally might address this myth, not by jumping head first into the very places where these emotional debates are taking place, but by re-considering what it means to educate the public at a time when everyone can be his/her own historian on the Web. Continue reading “The Future of Civil War History Is Not On the Battlefield”