Today in Virginia is Lee-Jackson Day, but according to the The News Leader in Staunton you are going to have to look hard to find anyone celebrating it. State offices are closed, but it looks like most government offices are open as well as public schools. I will be in my classroom today as well. While the public acknowledgment and celebration of Lee, Jackson, and all things Confederate may be on the decline, citizens of this great state will have plenty of opportunity over the next few years to study and come to appreciate the lives of these two men as well as the broader history of the war. Their stories are absolutely essential to understanding this beautiful state that we call home so I encourage everyone to embrace Lee and Jackson during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Update: My request has been passed on to Dr. Robertson by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Update #2: Thanks to Tom Perry for providing the following link, which includes an interview with Robertson in a Virginia newspaper: The claim is rejected by most historians, including local history expert James Robertson. “It’s blatantly false.” Robertson is a distinguished alumni history professor at Virginia Tech, an author and was even appointed by President Kennedy to be the executive director of the U.S Civil War Centennial Commission in the 60′s. “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”…. “This is not to say there were not thousands of blacks in the Confederate Army, but they were performing camp chores, hospital attendants, cooks,” said Robertson. “I spent eight years of my life putting together a 950 page biography of Jackson and I can tell you he did not have any black battalions, any black units serving under him.
The debate about black Confederate soldiers that was recently stirred up by a brief reference in a 4th grade Virginia history textbook shows no sign of letting up. Editorials continue to be published and various interest groups have firmly dug in their heels. The contours of this debate beautifully reflect the fault lines that continue to divide Virginians over how to commemorate the Civil War. These fault lines will continue to flair up when emotionally-charged topics such as this one are introduced, and it is likely that our reliance on sound historical scholarship will be pushed further away. This is one of those topics where everyone is an expert.
If there is one history professor whose reputation has survived intact it is Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech. Professor Robertson has taught at Tech for most of his career and is responsible for one of the largest and most popular survey courses on the Civil War. He has built his scholarly reputation on books about Civil War soldiers, Stonewall Jackson, and the Stonewall Brigade. In terms of his service to the public, Prof. Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial and is currently a member of the Executive Committee of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. He has taken the lead in highlighting the importance of education for this sesquicentennial commemoration. Well, this is the ultimate teaching moment. Continue reading →
Today I received a student scholarship application from our local Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation. They run an annual essay contest and award three $1,000 scholarships as well as an $8,000 award to the public school, private school, or homeschooled student who authors the essay that is judged to be the best in the state. There is much that I like about the contest. On the one hand the judges seek essays that are “well-written and thoroughly researched” and offer a “rigorous defense of a well-reasoned thesis.” They even make it a point to advise students that it is permissible to criticize Lee and Jackson. Perceptive students may inquire as to why such a point needs to be made at all. Although the contest allows students the widest latitude in formulating a topic and thesis, the foundation does offer some suggestions:
General Lee’s or General Jackson’s heritage and their lives at war and at peace.
Lee’s Christian fervor or Jackson’s religious passion
Jackson’s enigmatic personality or Lee’s dedication to gentlemanly virtues
Lee as President of Washington College or possible changes in the course of the Civil War had Jackson not died so early.
There is a slight bit of tension between the insistence that students think broadly about the topic and feel free to “criticize” and the suggested subjects listed above. They are more than suggested topics; rather, they include a number of implicit assumptions that are deeply rooted in our collective memory of these two individuals.
Just returned from an overnight trip with Michaela to Fredericksburg, where we dined with very good friends, who I consider to be the town’s power couple in the local history profession. On our way back we stopped at Elliewood to check out the improvements to the house. Michaela caught me digging up…umm…I mean tending to the ground around the spot that supposedly contains Jackson’s arm. All kidding aside, check out John Hennessy’s two-part post [Part 1 and Part 2] on the history of this particular site. The final installment may include the final word as to whether the arm is actually there.
I also recommend checking out the view from Hazel Grove to the Chancellor House. The NPS has recently cut the trees around Fairview, which offers visitors a much better view of what the battlefield would have looked like in 1863. That area offers the best opportunity to interpret the battle in a way that moves beyond the traditional climax of the story which is centered on Jackson’s wounding. I also noticed that the trees around Salem Church have been cut down along Rt. 3.