One of the most interesting sections of Carole Emberton’s new book, Beyond Redemption, is her analysis of the relationship between gun ownership among newly-freed slaves, voting, citizenship and violence in the postwar South. By 1860 service in the military had already expanded the suffrage to include a large percentage of white men. The right to vote, achieved through military service defined what it meant to lay claim to citizenship in the United States. The defense of home and nation not only opened the doors to voting for many white men, but the weapons used proved to be extremely useful in the often violent world of political campaigns and gatherings on election day.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the claims to citizenship and the vote by a formerly enslaved population rested directly on the right to bear arms. Former black Union soldiers often purchased their weapons upon leaving the army while many others purchased weapons with what little money they earned. They did so to protect themselves, but also as symbols of freedom and independence. The right to own a weapon constituted a tangible break with a past in which masters controlled the conditions in which their slaves could shoulder a gun. Most importantly, gun ownership was understood as a direct claim through the Second Amendment to the rights of citizenship and the vote. Continue reading “A Forgotten Battle For the Second Amendment”
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 “How Revolutionary Was Our Second American Revolution?”
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”
Jimmy Price notes that reenactments of engagements in which black soldiers participated have already taken place, though on a smaller scale. Even in these cases, however, it is not at all clear as to how the racial element was choreographed/interpreted. He also questions whether the general public would only “stomach” reenactments in which African Americans proved victorious. I don’t know.
A number of you have questioned whether a sufficient number of Confederate reenactors could be organized to reenact battles in which blacks took part. Does this video of the 2012 re-dedication of the Florida Division, UDC’s monument on the Olustee battlefield help?
One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to do so in such a setting. Then there is the question of how they should discuss these issues. Perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character, but whatever benefits are gained from such a presentation its limitations are pretty clear.
I guess what I am saying is that most people need significant interpretive scaffolding before being exposed to such a reenactment and the wide range of emotions that would no doubt surface.
I finally had a chance to watch the panel on USCTs that I moderated at Gettysburg College last month. C-SPAN aired it this weekend. I think the discussion went better than what I remembered, though I still get the sense of a subtle or perhaps no so subtle divide among the panelists between a detached scholarly interest in the subject and one that reflects a strong emotional streak. The latter comes through loud and clear in Hari Jones’s comments. I guess when it comes to black Union soldiers we still need both. It is an emotional topic for some and that is certainly understandable at this stage in the game.
One final thought: I definitely should have gotten a haircut before the conference.