During my last visit to the American History Museum in Washington, D.C. I got to see their Changing America exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and March on Washington. It was predictable from beginning to end. The exhibit was divided between the two key events in an overall narrative that highlighted America’s inevitable embrace of freedom and civil rights. It’s as watered down an exhibit as you can get and no doubt appealed to our sense of ourselves as exceptional and heroic. Visitors leave the 1863 side with little understanding of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but with the echo of that overused phrase: “The Promise of Freedom.” It’s a phrase that fits comfortably within an overall narrative that points to the possibilities of freedom in the form of civil rights and an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by blacks for the preservation of the Union. Continue reading
Today I read a very thoughtful post by John Rudy at his Interpreting the Civil War blog. He added his voice to the recent chorus of posts on the challenges and importance of properly commemorating the final two years of the Civil War. I agree with much of what he has to say.
But the war after Gettysburg morphs into that long, bloody, messy slog across Virginia or Tennessee and Georgia. It changes from prisoner exchanges into prison camps and the bloodiest ground on the American continent. Politics gets ugly, as Peace Democrats make a true, concerted effort (and nearly succeed) at unseating one of modern America’s most beloved historical figures. Battles become racialized, as men are massacred in battle not simply because of the color of their uniforms, but because of the color of their skin. The war gets ugly.
I’ve expressed optimism from the beginning and continue to hold out hope for the final two years, though I agree with John that it is going to be a challenge. This is, indeed, not your grandfather’s Civil War, but as Brooks Simpson rightfully notes, that does not mean that we should declare victory. I’ve noted multiple times, for example, that we need to reign in our embrace of an emancipationist narrative that is much too reductionist. I see it all the time here in Boston. You would think that everyone was an abolitionist, though the monuments in and around the city tell a slightly different story. Continue reading
One reason why the final two years of the Civil War is so difficult to commemorate is that it offers little in the kinds of dramatic battles that still captivate the imaginations of so many. Many of us are seduced by the success of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and how close they brought the Confederacy to independence. Whether we acknowledge the inevitability of Confederate defeat or not and with the benefit of hindsight, the final two years of the war appear to be a gradual deterioration of all things Confederate.
The other factor is that it becomes much more difficult to ignore the challenges and messiness of Reconstruction, which is well under way during those final two years. While it can be argued that our popular memory of the war has undergone a positive shift in recent years, our understanding of Reconstruction remains in the dark ages. It will be very sad indeed if the Civil War 150th ends in 1865. Continue reading
You can’t make this stuff up. I’ve written about Sea Raven Press in the past, specifically in reference to their book on Nathan Bedford Forrest for teens. This particular title, Everthing You Were Taught About the Civil War is Wrong, Ask a Southerner, seems to be the most popular given the number of times I’ve seen it referenced on certain websites. Here is a list of a few of the corrections to what you learned. I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites. I particularly like the claim that Abraham Lincoln both wanted to isolate blacks in their own state and transport them back to Africa. Apparently, these were not mutually exclusive options.
• American slavery got its start in the North
• the American abolition movement began in the South
• most Southern generals did not own slaves, and many, like Robert E. Lee, were abolitionists
• many Northern generals, like U.S. Grant, owned slaves and said they would not fight for abolition
• according to the 1860 Census a mere 4.8 percent of Southerners owned slaves, 95.2 percent did not Continue reading
It’s always interesting to watch politicians distort the past for their own purposes. This week Elbert Guillory decided to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. As he explains in this short video, he did so based on his understanding of the broad political history of race. Why he only recently came to some of these realizations goes unmentioned, but here are a few highlights. According to Guillory “the Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an abolitionist movement.” It was the Republican Party that gave blacks rights of citizenship during Reconstruction. Democrats have always been on the wrong side of the history of race. Most importantly, “they were the party of Jim Crow.” Guillory praises Dwight D. Eisenhower as the champion of the Civil Rights act of 1957.” Somehow he forgot that it was a Democrat from Texas who pushed for the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.
Ultimately, Guillory’s break with the Democrats is based on a rejection of the notion that only big government can improve the lives of Americans. But isn’t much of the history of freedom for African Americans the result of government intervention? Setting aside the important role that blacks played in securing their own freedom didn’t the government intervene directly during the Civil War to free slaves? Finally, wasn’t Reconstruction itself the most extreme example of government intervention during the postwar period before the 1930s? Wasn’t it Southern Democrats who wanted to be left to sort out their affairs without federal intrusion. Continue reading