Monthly Archives: April 2009

It’s just a flesh wound

The historical blog world being a rather small community, I assume that most of the people who are reading this already know that the debate over those elusive black Confederate soldiers has stirred up again.  Check out Civil War Memory and the Old Virginia Blog if you want to jump in.

The black Confederate proponents remind me of some hockey-masked, machete-wielding lunatic from a slasher movie.  You can shoot him, burn him, drown him, run him over with a dump truck, and he just keeps coming back for more.  Right when you think he’s had enough, in that split second before the closing credits roll, he sits bolt upright, ready to wreak more havoc in the next installment.

I suppose we owe the persistent critics of pseudo-historical myths a debt of gratitude for fighting the good fight—or toting the weary load, as it were.  Of course, many criticisms have been levelled at the notion of thousands upon thousands of eager black Confederate troops, critcisms based on interpretation of evidence, the need for context, the selection of sources, and so forth.  And all those criticisms are right on the mark.  But will it make any difference?  Will it change any minds?  I doubt it.  There comes a point when evidence and argumentation becomes irrelevant, and that point comes when the problem is one of perception.

Let’s say you run into a guy who tells you that he makes extra cash by raising live dinosaurs.  He takes you behind his house, where he shows you a huge enclosure filled with alligators.  They’re everywhere, sunning themselves on logs and rocks, sliding through the water, strutting across the ground.  “See there?” he says, with perfect satisfaction.  “A whole pen full of dinosaurs.  Big, scaly dinosaurs.”

“Those are alligators,” you reply.

“What are you talking about?  Look at ‘em.  Big, mean reptiles.  Sharp teeth.  They lay big eggs.  Dinosaurs.”  And he’s as serious as a heart attack.  What do you do?  There’s no real response that you can make.  The difference in perception is so basic that communication is no longer possible.  And of course, the guy who sees the dinosaurs is convinced that he’s won the argument.

In that case, there’s not much left for you to do.  Maybe my slasher movie analogy was wrong.  Maybe a better illustration would be the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, still trying to come at the opponent who had already hacked off his arms and legs.

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We might eventually be sorry about the whole slavery thing

I’m a little embarrassed.  There’s a political to-do here in my home state of Tennessee involving historical memory, and I didn’t even know about it until Dimitri Rotov pointed it out via this post

We’re trying to decide whether or not we’re sorry about that whole slavery and Jim Crow business.  Evidently we’re not sorry yet, but there’s a good possibility that we might be in the near future. 

Mr. Rotov raises some interesting objections.  For one thing, this measure “puts the government in the position of making a claim against the lives of Tennessee residents, the majority of whom are transients or descendants of non-Tennessee ancestors.” 

See, the problem is, my family has been in Tennessee for a long time.  On the other hand, my great-grandfather was named for Gen. George H. Thomas, so I’m guessing they were Unionists.  Then again, they could’ve been anti-secession slaveholders.  And I’m not sure about my mom’s side of the family. 

What if I’m not sorry right now, but I find out that my great-great-grandpa rode with Forrest, or something?  Can I defer my apology until later, pending a genealogical investigation?

Anyway, we’re still thinking about it, so we’ll have to get back to you.

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Civil War ship in inland Georgia

Here’s a nifty outdoor exhibit for you.  Last weekend the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia unveiled a full-scale replica of the USS Water Witch, a blockader captured by a Confederate raiding party near Savannah in 1864.  The story of its capture is one heck of a tale—check out the account on the NCWNM’s website.  It’s like something out of a nineteenth-century version of Tom Clancy.

I didn’t know much about the museum until I ran across the Water Witch news story, but now that I’ve scoped out the exhibits online, I think I’m going to have to take a trip to Columbus.

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Sentiment and historic sites

Professor Brooks Simpson has posted a wonderful piece at Civil Warriors.  It’s about the sentimental attachments we develop toward historic sites, and the conflicted feelings that changes at these sites can generate.  Professor Simpson focuses on the recent transformations at Gettysburg National Military Park that have gotten so much attention around the historical blogosphere. 

He acknowledges that these changes are beneficial and necessary, but he also notes that the park is more than an artifact for him.  It’s also a place he loves:  “Am I glad as a historian that the woods west of the Sedgwick monument have been cleared to give us a much better understanding of the terrain that Daniel Sickles saw on July 2, 1863?  Sure.  But I liked those woods.  Same thing goes for the clearing along Oak Hill.”

Gettysburg is one of my favorite places, too.  Its combination of gorgeous scenery, small-town atmosphere, monumental commemoration, and tourist kitsch—all of it saturated in history—is absolutely unique.  I love being in a place where history isn’t latent, but dominates the landscape.  Unlike many other history buffs, though, I don’t have a longstanding relationship with Gettysburg.  In fact, I’ve only been there twice. 

The first time was a few years ago.  The NPS was already in the process of transferring the collection out of the old visitor center.  Much of it was still in place, though, and the electric map was still up and running.  Still, it was pretty apparent that the old VC was on its last legs.  In addition to the building’s physical deterioration, the exhibits failed to explain the battle (or even many of the artifacts themselves).  There was very little interpretation going on.  Having little sentimental attachment to the facility, and viewing it critically from the standpoint of someone working (at the time) in public history, I didn’t regret its passing.

I can certainly understand why serious aficionados saw little wrong with the exhibits in the old building.  If you’ve already mastered the strategic and tactical picture, then you can appreciate the field without needing to have it explained for you.  As I’ve said before, though, most visitors don’t have the advantage of expertise.  My stance is that the NPS has a responsibility to equip its visitors to understand the sites they’re seeing.  And I couldn’t for the life of me see how the average visitor would obtain a better grasp of the battle in the old museum.  The new one, by contrast, explains Lee’s invasion, the Union response, the three days of battle, and the aftermath.  It gives visitors a grasp of what happened there.

I have a similar attitude toward the removal of trees that encroach on the field.  I don’t have a personal stake in these woods, and I welcome alterations that bring us closer to understanding the battle.

Now, the question is this: Would I be so enthusiastic about these changes if I had been a longtime visitor to the park?  Would I be so cavalier about altering the park for the sake of better interpretation if my own fond memories were at stake?  In all honesty, maybe not.  When places that are special to me change, I usually react with both regret and indignation.

This tension between sentiment and interpretive need is, I think, a unique issue when it comes to historic sites.  Places play a unique role in our lives.  Most of us who love history have fond memories connected to particular books, films, or places.  If you grew up reading Bruce Catton or watching Ken Burns, you can open a book or turn on a DVD player and access that experience whenever you want.  When the memory is tied to a piece of ground, though, that’s not always the case.  You might go back to find that it’s no longer the place you remember.

These debates will probably continue as long as exhibits become outdated, vegetation grows up, and facilities need replacing.  Personally, though, I think the fact that we care enough about these places to have an emotional stake in them is a healthy sign.  We might argue about whether or not they need changing, but we can agree that they’re worth the argument.

(Photo of the High Water Mark from Wikimedia Commons)

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In the midnight hour, babe

This month’s Civil War News has an interesting story involving the Rebel Yell.  You might be aware that there are a few old recordings of the yell by actual Confederate veterans.  (You can hear one of them on this website.)  Hearing it performed by a real Rebel is pretty cool, but it’s a far cry from hearing thousands of charging soldiers do it at once.  Thanks to the Museum of the Confederacy, you can now hear that, too.

The MOC has taken two authentic Rebel Yell recordings, adjusted them to create countless individual voices, and mixed them all together to simulate yells by hordes of charging soldiers, all the way up to “the entire Army of Northern Virginia.”  The results are available on a CD for your listening pleasure.

It’s a pretty nifty use of technology, and it gives me an idea.  Let’s mount huge speakers along the perimeter of every battlefield in the country, facing outward, and blast this sucker at full volume on the top of every hour.  You’d see a dramatic reduction in encroaching residential development.

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Reconstructing the Revolution

I’ve added a new link to the blogroll that merits your attention.  It’s called A Miniature History of the American Revolution, and it’s fascinating.   The author (who uses the nom de plume “AD”) is documenting his efforts to reconstruct the war’s battles with small figures, using in-depth research in both primary and secondary sources.  His current project is the 1781 Battle of Cowpens, a personal favorite of mine.

You might be thinking that it’s primarily a wargaming site.  Not so—although I’d imagine that wargamers would love it, too.  This blog is more of a research project, an effort to understand what happened on the field and to depict the results in three dimensions.  If you’re a Rev War enthusiast like me (particularly when it comes to the war in the South), then check it out.  I think it’s one of the best ideas for a military history blog that I’ve ever seen.

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