Tag Archives: USCTs

Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.

Calling All American History Teachers

I know it’s only January, but I know some of you out there are already thinking about professional development workshops for this coming summer.  I strongly encourage you to consider the Civil War Trust’s (formerly known as the Civil War Preservation Trust) annual Teachers Institute.  This year the gathering will take place in Nashville, Tennessee from July 14-17.  I attended and thoroughly enjoyed last year’s meeting in Hagerstown, Maryland, where I took part in a roundtable discussion on how to use social media in the classroom.

I will be leading two sessions this year.  The first one will be made available to all participants, though it will cost a bit extra.  The title of the talk is, “Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates On the Internet and In Our Classrooms”.  We are going to discuss the textbook debacle here in Virginia, but my overall goal is to use this incident as a case study for how to both search and assess Online information.  Participants will have the opportunity to evaluate some of the most popular black Confederate websites currently available.  Instructors need to be committed to teaching their students how to intelligently access digital information; unfortunately, this has been almost entirely ignored by the media and other commentators in the wake of this scandal.  [Tomorrow the New York Times will publish my Op-ed piece on just this issue on their Disunion blog.  I will post the text and a link when it becomes available.]

The second session is titled, “Separating Fact From Fiction: Teaching Glory”.  I love showing this movie to my students, but all too often teachers fail to introduce it as a popular interpretation of the 54th Massachusetts and the experiences of black Civil War soldiers.  While the movie does function as a useful entry point to numerous issues concerning slavery and race there are factual and interpretive problems.  More importantly, however, the script offers a highly selective understanding of the unit’s importance to the Civil War that, in the end, may more closely reflect our collective need for a certain view of the legacy of the Civil War.  I explored this in a previous post on the movie and how I use it in the classroom.  Participants will discuss the roles of individual characters and we will examine specific scenes from the movie.  I also plan on distributing a collection of primary sources that challenge some of the interpretive decisions made in the movie and that can hopefully be used in the classroom.

I am looking forward to this trip.  I’ve only been to Nashville once and I have never had the opportunity to explore the many Civil War sites in the area.  Information about individuals sessions and presenters will be added in the near future so check back.

Public History and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

The History Department at North Carolina State University [their website is awesome] is hosting a conference in March, titled, “The Public History of the American Civil War, a Sesquicentennial Symposium.”  I’ve been asked to put together an abstract for a panel that will focus on recent interpretive challenges at Civil War battlefields.  It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am going to focus on the battle of the Crater and the Petersburg National Battlefield.  Here is the abstract. “When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:

Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s.  Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service.  At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public.  While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift.  This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.  This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely.  A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Response to Critics

I received my author copies of the most recent issue of Civil War Times magazine, which includes my feature story on the Crater, so I assume it is now available at your local newsstand.  A few days ago Dana Shoaf passed on an email and asked me to respond for the next issue.  It’s an interesting comment and one that I suspect others have struggled with.

I was very disappointed in Kevin M. Levin’s article on the execution of black Union soldiers by the Confederate Army after the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg siege.  Mr. Levin gives quite a good accounting that explains the motivation of the Confederate troops.  However, he utterly fails to differentiate between explanation and excuse. The Confederate troops perpetrated a war crime, as there is no other way to describe the wanton murder of captured American soldiers in uniform. As such, these Confederates join the ranks of the German SS troops who murdered American prisoners at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge and those Japanese soldiers who did the same on countless occasions to captured Americans in the Pacific Theatre.  I fail to see any difference between these incidents. I can only imagine the disgust felt by your African-American readers; mine is fairly high.

PS:  I view slave revolts as the legitimate right of the enslaved.

Sincerely,

Jack

Response:

Thanks to Jack for the thoughtful response to my essay.  The reader criticizes me for failing to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse in my analysis of why Confederates massacred black Union soldiers at the Crater.  While the essay received a positive assessment for the explanation offered, this reader was left with the impression that I had excused the actions of Confederates at the Crater.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My essay was intended as an explanation of what happened and why and should not be interpreted in any way as condoning or condemning what took place.  Such conclusions and/or comparisons with related incidents from other wars are best left to the readers of this essay.  That said, I suggest that this reader runs the risk of obscuring the complexity of historic events by reducing the killing of black Union soldiers to the murder of American soldiers by foreign soldiers.  I consider this article a success if it assists readers in better understanding the nature of fighting at the Crater in July 1864.  Finally, it may be helpful to point out that this article is part of a much larger project on the Crater and historical memory, titled, Remembering Murder As War: The Battle of the Crater.