Once again, it is my job to bring to your attention various interpretations of the past that reflect how Americans have remembered the Civil War. They take many forms and, yes, some are truly bizarre. Consider the following documentary. Stonewall creates a revisionist / historical parallel between Civil War hero Thomas Stonewall Jackson and the monumental Stonewall riots of New York City. It repositions him as a proud leader in the fight for gay civil rights.
This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com. It is the start of a series of musings from a historian of the culture and politics of Civil War America, drawn from his notes and photographs upon bringing this perspective “back to the battlefield.”
On a Sunday in July, a few weeks before the vaunted sesquicentennial re-enactment, I enjoyed a balmy day at the Manassas battlefield. Like many of the sites I visited, the National Park Service looked ready: the new signs were beautifully designed, the ranger talks were entertaining and informative, and the trail directions were clear. The Manassas Battlefield is an excellent place to see the different scale of battles between 1861 and 1862—the difference between a skirmish between untested men across a few small hills and a major engagement across miles of terrain, with armies hardened by the experience of war.
I’ve taken a great deal of heat for much of my commentary on how Civil War battlefield preservation is typically framed for public consumption. The most recent example can be found here. This morning I read John Hennessy’s description of a recent NPS event that marked the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Some background for the event:
The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996. We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.
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.
On a related note, the state of Virginia has officially rejected the notion that thousands of slaves fought as soldiers in the Confederate army.
Oh…and a reminder to the city of Norfolk: NO PARKING TICKETS ON LEE-JACKSON DAY!
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.
Few people doubt that the problems with this textbook arose as a result of the over reliance on online sources, which utilize little to no quality control methods. This is something that I’ve pointed out over and over on this site. Fortunately, our state’s colleges and universities include some of the most talented historians in the country. One of them was responsible for the initial warning about this particular textbook reference. Unfortunately, there is a large segment of our population that gives little weight to their findings even though these folks may be in the best position to offer the rest of us much needed guidance. It is a sad commentary that historians such as Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, Ken Noe, Joseph Glatthaar, and Robert Krick are overshadowed by the likes of Ann DeWitt, H.K. Edgerton, and G. Ashleigh Moody.
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 “Calling on James I. Robertson”