Slavery, Emancipation, and the Sesquicentennial

Several weeks ago in Fredericksburg Remembered John Hennessy offered a thoughtful post on the experience of leading a tour of slavery-related sites in Fredericksburg to a group of people, the majority of whom were African American.  The topic, which John has returned to in other posts, concerned the role of the National Park Service in privileging the story of reconciliation over the issues of slavery and emancipation.  There is something to that, perhaps, although, as John had pointed out elsewhere, the NPS often mirrors the mainstream approach rather than drives it, and when it has driven it, as in the case of the new NPS museum at Gettysburg, it gets flack from some quarters for introducing questions of why they fought as opposed to how they fought.

There’s something to this.  NPS sites don’t always tell us much about the story of slavery and emancipation.  For example, I don’t recall seeing too much about Benjamin F. Butler’s decision to classify escaped slaves as contraband when I visited Fort Monroe several years ago, although the cell in which Jefferson Davis spent some time was featured.  I haven’t been to Petersburg in some time, but, back in the 1970s, you would have been hard-pressed to know about the story of the black division at the Crater; north of the James, when I visited the sites of Forts Gilmer and Harrison, I was unaware until later of the role played by black soldiers in those areas.  Given that this was some time ago, things may well have changed, and I owe it to myself to return for a visit to this area, anyway.

There’s been some talk about why African Americans rarely visit Civil War sites.  I think the answer is not all that difficult to offer.  Tell me why you visit these battlefields, and then ask yourself whether blacks would find those reasons compelling.  Yes, you can incorporate the black experience at some battlefields (including Gettysburg) without distorting the narrative of the battle.  But it also seems to me that we (white) folks are asking the wrong questions, as if we’re the norm.  After all, one might structure sesquicentennial observances quite differently if we chose to focus on the story of slavery and emancipation the way we have focused on, say, the secession crisis.  Perhaps that’s why I found the slave auction reenactment in St. Louis earlier this year such an interesting story.  The event provided a marked contrast to the famed secession ball held in Charleston in December 2010.  It forced people to face square on what right white southerners were most interested in defending, although I should also note that the auction reenacted took place in Union-controlled territory, something also worth a bit of contemplation.

People want to learn about their history.  You see this all the time: you see it in discussions about Civil War ancestry.  I have a tie to battlefields such as Shepherdstown, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness.  That’s not the only reason I visit those areas, although people who know me know I have a real weakness when it comes to Little Round Top, and it has nothing to do with Joshua Chamberlain.  I expect what motivates me motivates others, and so I’d suggest that we recast our thinking on these issues.

I have a colleague on the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association who is in the beginning stages of planning a celebration of emancipation and black military service in Springfield at the end of 2012 and 2013.  He’s passionate about what he’s doing.  He reenacts as a member of the USCT.  Clearly he is moved to commemorate what moves him.  But his example also contains a larger lesson: those who think that the sesquicentennial does not speak to them might consider owning their own commemoration of the sesquicentennial.  Leaving popular understandings of the Civil War up to be remembered through secession balls and battlefield reenactments concedes the field to certain emphases and interpretations.  There are other ways to go about these things, other ways to tell the story from different perspectives, other ways to draw attention to the momentous event known as the destruction of slavery and the assertion of freedom through liberation.  Not telling that story surrenders the field to those who want to frame the conflict as one of brother versus brother, with people fighting for what they believed in, with slavery shoved into the darkness yet again.

In short, if you want Americans to understand the Civil War not only as a war of national reunification triumphing over separatism but also as a conflict that led to the most radical and revolutionary transformation in American life, I’d suggest that you get moving and do something.  You can’t be unhappy about the stories told by others if you leave the storytelling to them.

6 thoughts on “Slavery, Emancipation, and the Sesquicentennial

  1. Emmanuel Dabney March 29, 2011 / 7:42 pm

    I do hope you will come to Petersburg & Richmond National Battlefields.

    In the 1990s, Petersburg Nat’l Battlefield erected a monument at what was Confederate Battery Nine which is dedicated to the services of the USCTs in the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James during the 1864-1865 campaign. That particular portion of the Confederate Dimmock Line fell to USCTs in Edward Hincks’ division in June 1864.

    Ranger guided tours of the Crater battlefield include regular discussions about the actions of the USCTs. New interpretive signage is being developed along with a trail to further explore the Union assault on the Confederates that day.

    Fort Gilmer includes an audio program exploring the charge of the 7th USCT on September 29, 1864.

  2. MarkD March 30, 2011 / 8:39 am

    “. . . if you want Americans to understand the Civil War . . . also as a conflict that led to the most radical and revolutionary transformation in American life”

    This is such a difficult question because such a political football. I think that the country was radically transformed is a widespread view. Just ask Ezra Pound. I found the essay “The State of the Union” by Donald Ratcliff in “Themes of the American Civil War” edited by Susan-Mary Grant to be quite provocative. He raises the question that the antebellum period is widely misrepresented and not just by the usual suspects. I think Libertarians do this quite frequently. I think his is a very intriguing thesis that probably has a lot of merit.

  3. Richard Welty April 3, 2011 / 10:52 am

    visited Fort Monroe in February, and they have a short film playing on a continuous loop that addresses contrabands and the African-American experience as it related to Fort Monroe. so i’d say that things there have improved.
    Fort Monroe remains a little weird about Davis. my stroll around the perimeter of the old fort led me past this location:

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 3, 2011 / 11:20 am

      As I’ve said, I probably owe the area a second visit. I just have to figure out how to bribe my wife to come along. I’m afraid that means Williamsburg on site again. 🙂 Last time the trade off was Williamsburg for several days to a few hours at Cold Harbor.

      • Richard Welty April 3, 2011 / 1:18 pm

        if it’s been a while, then a trip to the Monitor center at the Mariner’s Museum could make up for a couple of days of Williamsburg.

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