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.