Bells Across the Land

On April 9, 2015, at 3:15 PM EDT, the National Park Service invites you to participate in “Bells Across the Land.” At that time, people will ring bells for the next four minutes–one for each year of the war–to commemorate the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States.

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Flags For the Fourth

It’s July 4. Back in 1863 it was the day after the Union triumph at Gettysburg: it was also the day Ulysses S. Grant took possession of Vicksburg.

Several weeks ago two graduates of institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia decided upon a most appropriate way to mark this twin triumph of the armies of the United States.

Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.
Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.

I have always liked the North Carolina monument. People forget that it was cast in New York City. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s works also include Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore.

We then walked across the street.

Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.
Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.

I’m not so sure I care for the proliferation of modern regimental monuments. The 11th Mississippi has been honored with new monuments at Antietam and Gettysburg. However, this regiment suffered terribly at Gettysburg.

Then it was down the street …

Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.
Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.

Ah, the Old Dominion itself, topped by Robert E. Lee. As he himself admitted, what happened on July 3 was all his fault … although I agree with George Pickett that the Yankees had something to do with it.

Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.
Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.

Of course, there are some people who think it was all James Longstreet’s fault. We disagree. So we thought we’d honor this graduate of the United States Military Academy and groomsman at Ulysses S. Grant’s wedding. He was smart enough to know when the war was over.

Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.
Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.

People forget that Robert E. Lee’s headquarters was located along the Chambersburg Pike west of town. We did not.

Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.
Photograph by Kristilyn Baldwin.

Finally, nothing could please us more than to learn that The Civil War Trust announced on July 1 a campaign to purchase this building and its surrounding establishment with plans to restore this area to its wartime appearance. We thought that was worth celebrating: after all, this land was actually in Union hands for much of July 1.

Happy Fourth of July!





Commemorating 1864

To date, each year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial has been fairly easy to figure out when it comes to events the have been commemorated. In 2011 we had Fort Sumter and First Manassas; for 2012 we had Antietam and emancipation; for 1863 there was Gettysburg followed by Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Several other events got some attention (such as Fredericksburg and the 1863 New York City draft riots), while others were overlooked or underreported (Shiloh and the Seven Days, for example). As expected, Gettysburg was the traditional high point, but it seems unfair to criticize every other event because it did not measure up to Gettysburg. Take Gettysburg away and we have a fairer idea of how the sesquicentennial’s been going.

Now we approach 2014. In Europe they are gearing up for the centennial of World War One (I’m surprised more attention hasn’t been paid to that, because there are some terribly interesting debates going on right now about public memory of that war, especially issues of causation and responsibility). In 2015 we’ll have Waterloo (I am hoping that the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College does not overlap with Waterloo, because I think it would be very interesting to compare Gettysburg 150 with Waterloo 200). Stateside 2015 will feature the fall of Richmond, Appomattox, and Lincoln’s assassination. But how do we approach 1864 in 2014?

Any ideas?

Commemorating the Baltimore Riot of April 19, 1861

I came across this rather interesting account by Greg Clemmer of how people chose to commemorate the attack upon soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry as they changed trains in Baltimore on April 19, 1861.  It strikes a pleasant note of mutual respect and reconciliation; moreover, I can understand why Clemmer may have taken exception to aspects of an opinion piece by Leonard Pitts, although I note he did not contest Pitts’s main argument.  Then I saw that Clemmer had already offered basically the same criticism of Pitts’s piece days before the event.

Taken together, it’s all rather odd.  Clemmer complains that Pitts is stereotyping white southerners and taking extreme examples as representative.  Fine.  I’ve made that point rather recently about how wrong it is to empower extremists who claim to speak for the South as if they really do speak for it.  However, Clemmer then makes what I see as his own unfortunate comment about stereotyping: “Yet what Mr. Pitts really did was reinforce the unfortunate stereotype of African-Americans being more interested in their originations than their destinations.”  Pitts’s commentary does not merit that characterization, either, and perhaps Clemmer would have been better off to have omitted that observation all together.  Meanwhile, he neatly sidesteps Pitts’s major argument, preferring to notice the mutual respect shown by the reenactors … who, let’s remind ourselves, are reenactors, not participants, in an interesting takeoff of the tale about Joshua Chamberlain, John B. Gordon, and Surrender Triangle at Appomattox on April 12, 1865.

Once more, race squares off against reunion.

The Representativeness of Extremes

One of the reenactments that will be ongoing during the next four years is simply unintentional.  That is, people (the media, bloggers, commentators, etc., as well as many other folks) will seize upon an expression of extreme views or extreme behavior and offer it as representative.  Lots of people do this.  White southerners risk being reduced in certain representations to a bunch of rabble-rousing rebels with more beer than common sense as they proclaim that it was all about states rights, for example, as the media seems intent on making sure to seek out those folks for commentary.  In turn, many of those folks (and others) talk about “Yankees” and “politically-correct leftist academics” and so on, being sure to draw clear (to them) distinctions between North and South, northerners and southerners (it’s never clear how many people west of the Mississippi fit into this scheme, nor does the typology make allowance for issues of ethnicity and race, although here and there you see religion sneak in, and rarely in a nice way).  The ongoing debate over how Americans should remember the Civil War is shaped fundamentally by the decision to focus on the extremes, especially as refined through the creation of self-serving stereotypes, and then claiming that those extremes are in fact representative.

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Event Versus Process in the Sesquicentennial

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the day Confederate forces opened fire on a United States military installation, Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.  But you all know that.  There are all sorts of events planned to commemorate that event.  Some events may even reflect on what happened and why.  However, it is one of the traps of commemoration that people tend to commemorate events rather than longer term processes.  True, we have had a small wave of conferences on the coming of the war, and we’ve had much discussion about the place of slavery in the public’s historical consciousness.  It will be interesting, however, to see whether examinations of theme and process hold their own as people look to commemorate the anniversaries of specific events.  Sometimes one can merge these approaches, and yet it’s also clear that many people are simply more interested in the military history of the war, going so far at times as to brush away discussion of why they fought in favor of why and how they fought here.  After all, most of the logos involving the sesquicentennial stress military themes or prominent individuals.

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The Sesquicentennial and Southern Identity

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s expressed his displeasure with a recent short commentary posted on History News Network.  A look at the commentary reveals it to be superficial, although I think Kevin errs in offering an overly-broad headline, because Steven Conn does not speak for all (or perhaps even many) public historians.  After all, readers of this blog, especially southern readers, would resent it if I titled a post “Southerners Never Learn” to discuss Confederate heritage advocate George Purvis.

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A Burning Question in Atlanta

It appears that the efforts of the Georgia Historical Society to commemorate an event in Civil War history that happened in Atlanta has met with opposition from the city’s chapter of the NAACP.

Only in this case it involves an effort to commemorate the burning (final burning, I may add) of Atlanta by William T. Sherman before he commenced his March to the Sea.

“It seems to be honoring something that reminds us of some tragic occurrences that happened to our people at the time. The whole war itself centered around the slave issue,” said R.L. White, president of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch. “We accept that it’s history but would like to see it done somewhere else than the heart of the civil rights historic district. It’s kind of tragic that the state is choosing that location.”

This is confusing on a number of levels.  W. Todd Groce, who is president of the society, argues that the marker’s placement is historically accurate (down by the railroad yard).  So that should mean that the SCV should support him, because that organization’s all about historical accuracy.  The misgivings of Mr. White seem a bit curious.  After all, Sherman’s occupation of Atlanta liberated black people, and I’d assume that’s not a painful memory.  That it was Sherman who did that was ironic, given his lack of concern for the welfare of blacks or the destruction of slavery, but there were other Union generals, including Oliver O. Howard, who felt differently.  That said, the “hurt feelings” defense has also been used when it comes to displays of the Confederate Battle Flag, and once you admit it’s a valid complaint in that instance, how can you contest its validity in another instance?

That said, I hope Dimitri Rotov smiles when he comes across this:

“It’s all about trying to capture heritage tourism dollars,” said Will Hanley, the marker coordinator for the Historical Society. “We feel there will be a lot of tourism dollars spent on the Civil War anniversary.”

Ah, so that’s what it’s all about.  Set up markers so people will visit them and spend money.

Just another day in the life of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Sins of Omission, Sins of Commission: Virginia’s Governor Does It Again

Last April Virginia governor Robert McDonnell ignited a big fuss when he declared April “Confederate History Month” in Virginia.  Several bloggers, including yours truly, criticized the view of Civil War history contained in the proclamation.  Other critics seized upon the governor’s omission of slavery, and that became the subject of most of the commentary, including humorous remarks.

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