Tag Archives: slavery

Who really disrespects the architects of secession?

Is it those who try to impose tortuous and convoluted rationalizations onto their behavior, thereby implying that they were either too stupid or too deceitful to explain why they were doing what they were doing?  Or is it those who take them at their word?

I’m with Andy Hall on this one.  Let’s at least give the secessionist leaders the courtesy of acknowledging that they were intelligent enough to know what they were about.  To do otherwise is to suggest that they were liars, fools, or both.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

An African-American politician says we should stop bickering and start commemorating

Read all about it.  Here’s a sample:

Ford said senators should get involved in anniversary commemorations to encourage understanding, to prevent misinformation and the spread of hatred.

“If people died, and we’re going to have this celebration, I want everybody in South Carolina to be united on it, to understand each other, to talk to each other,” said the 62-year-old New Orleans native. “Don’t be just mean-spirited. Be willing to talk to your white colleagues. Be willing to talk to your black colleagues. Be willing to go to the schools and talk to students, say, listen, we’ve got to move forward from what you think happened between 1861 and 1865.”

 An NAACP spokesman is calling him a “Confederate apologist.”  I think that’s quite an overstatement, but maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, check out the news story and see what you think.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Give the makers of that Mary Surratt movie a break

Last night I went to a movie with my mom and saw the trailer for The Conspirator.  It looked pretty good.  (Of course, the trailers always look pretty good, which is why I ended up shelling out money to see that Clash of the Titans remake on opening night.)

When the movie screened at the AHA meeting, the topic of slavery and popular memory of the Civil War came up, according to a piece posted earlier this month at HNN:

As one AHA member observed, is it really possible to make a film about the Civil War era and not mention the word slavery?  The Southern Surratt family had been slaveholders before falling into more difficult economic times, but this fact is not alluded to in the film.  Instead, Aiken observes that he is as dedicated to his cause (the Union) as Surratt is to her cause.  However, the cause to which Surratt has pledged herself and her family is never identified.  Thus, it is possible for viewers to provide alternative answers to this question which deny the centrality of the slavery issue to the origins of the Civil War.  Those who attended a secessionist ball in Charleston, South Carolina may assert that they are commemorating a commitment to states’ rights rather than celebrating an effort to preserve the institution of slavery.  And The Conspirator fails to offer any cinematic challenge to such an assumption.  One may view The Conspirator free from the disturbing questions of race and slavery.  Perhaps this will make the film appealing to a larger audience, but it will do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War as we observe the 150th anniversary of that conflict.

That’s not to say that the film is inaccurate.  In fact, the writer goes on to admit that The Conspirator “includes more accurate historical detail than most Hollywood productions.”  Yet some historians are still troubled, because it doesn’t address deeper issues revolving around the causes of the war.

So can you make a Civil War movie without dealing with slavery?  I’m going to suggest that you can.

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I’ll be the first to state that the debate over slavery was, in every meaningful sense, what made the Civil War happen.  If there had been no controversy over slavery’s extension, there would have been no war. It’s as simple as that.  Anyone who asserts that slavery had nothing to do with the war simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  (To employ my own movie-related metaphor, such a person is wearing hockey pads.)

Still, I don’t think it’s necessary to address the war’s larger causes in every single attempt to tell stories about the Civil War era.  This isn’t a movie about the Civil War’s causes, nor even a movie about the Surratt family’s economic background. It’s a movie about the trial of Mary Surratt.  We don’t expect historians who write tactical studies of Civil War battles to address slavery’s role in the war.  Nor do we expect historians who write books about the very historical themes the film tackles—namely the relationship between military arrests of civilians and constitutional issues—to do so.  Why should we expect filmmakers to do it?

Apparently we expect it because films are a teachable moment.  The movie, we are told, will “do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War.”  But is it really the filmmakers’ job to foster popular understanding of the war’s causes and of the debate over emancipation?  I don’t think so.  They’ve apparently handled the matter of the Surratt trial in a satisfactory manner, and that’s all they can reasonably be expected to do.

Furthermore, it’s worth asking whether most moviegoers are so ignorant of the importance of slavery in the coming of the Civil War that they need this film to tell them.  I submit that most people who don’t affirm the critical role of slavery to the war do so not out of simple ignorance, but through a conscious and willing act of denial necessitated by needs that have little to do with a desire to understand history.  I doubt that, if the film did put slavery front and center, thousands of audience members would leave the theater muttering to themselves, “Slavery caused the war?  Why, I had no idea.”  No, most Americans who deny that the peculiar institution brought on the conflict do so despite reams of scholarship and primary material telling them otherwise, so it’s unlikely that a movie is going to change their minds.

If historians are concerned about popular understanding of the relationship between the war and slavery—as they certainly should be—then let’s engage this topic in accessible books, exhibits, and documentaries.  This is a public history issue, not a Hollywood issue.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War

USA Today takes stock

…of the uproar surrounding the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  It’s not even April yet, and I’m already getting sick of this.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Sleeping with ghosts

Back in October I posted a review of Historic Brattonsville, a great site in York County, SC.  Over at the National Trust for Historic Preservation blog, there’s an interesting item concerning Brattonsville written by living historian Joseph McGill, Jr.  He’s found a way to combine reenacting with advocacy, drawing attention to one particular type of endangered structure—the slave cabin.

McGill travels throughout the Palmetto State, spending nights in original slave dwellings and using the ensuing publicity as an opportunity to explain why these buildings are important and need to be maintained.  He’s been chronicling his experiences at the National Trust blog; you can find the first post in his series here, along with links to related news stories.


Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Reenacting

Patriots and plantations

While the relationship between England and her American colonies was turning sour, a Scotch-Irish settler named William Bratton migrated to northwestern South Carolina, where he became a local officeholder, a slaveowner, and a colonel in the militia.  His sons were substantial men in their own right; one of them, a doctor, built his own house a stone’s throw from the one where his father had lived, and later descendants continued to build on and farm the land near William’s original farm.  This collection of homes, plantations, stores, and taverns acquired the name “Brattonsville” from the family that prospered there for several generations.

Today Historic Brattonsville is an outdoor museum and living history site, one of a chain of York County’s Culture and Heritage Museums, which range in subject matter from local history to the environment.  By preserving the homes and stories of successive generations of the Bratton family, the site allows visitors to explore the history of upper South Carolina from its settlement in the pre-Revolutionary years through the late nineteenth century.  I’d always missed it on my trips through that part of South Carolina, so this time I made it a priority, and I’m glad I did.  It’s worth seeing.

The Revolutionary backcountry is only part of the story told at Brattonsville, but it’s probably the one most familiar to many of the history enthusiasts who visit.  In fact, the property includes the site of a small but significant Revolutionary War battle in which William Bratton participated.  In the summer of 1780, as partisan militia rallied to harass the British who occupied South Carolina, a detachment under the command of the despised Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion came to the Brattonsville area looking to arrest Whig leaders.  One Loyalist threatened William Bratton’s wife with a reaping hook, an incident re-told in many accounts of the backcountry war.  On July 11 Huck and his men camped at James Williamson’s plantation, just a short distance from Bratton’s house.  Bratton himself was one of the militiamen who surprised them there the next morning.  It was a short fight, lasting only ten or fifteen minutes, and there were only a few hundred men involved, but it cost Huck his life and was one of the first Whig victories following the fall of Charleston.  It’s the kind of thing that would have made a rollicking sequence in The Patriot, and indeed some scenes from that movie were filmed at Brattonsville.  (Let me add a plug here for the thoroughly-researched book on Huck’s Defeat by historian Michael Scoggins, who works for Culture and Heritage Museums.)

There are about thirty historic or recreated structures to see at Historic Brattonsville, many of them original to the Bratton plantation but others moved from the surrounding region to illustrate life in upper South Carolina from the 1760’s to the late 1800’s.  They include William Bratton’s Revolutionary-era house, the large two-story “Homestead” built by his son, a couple of later homes inhabited by other Bratton descendants, some representative examples of backcountry cabins, various plantation outbuildings and barns, and a few slave dwellings.  The staff raise animals here, most of them breeds that were once common on American farms but are now quite scarce.  Adjacent to the buildings are several trails that wind among lovely woods and ponds and past the Huck’s Defeat battleground.

It’s largely a self-guided tour.  At the visitor center you pick up a walking map with information about the buildings, and a small exhibit area and orientation film help to provide some context for what you’ll be seeing.  A couple of costumed guides escorted me through the Homestead house, but you’re mostly on your own, and you can therefore wander around the grounds and through the open structures at your own pace.  The map and some signage provide the basics on names, dates, and uses, but you don’t always get the rich depth that a guided tour provides, although I enjoyed the freedom to explore.  The orientation room in the visitor center has some background information and a few display cases, including props from The Patriot.  I’d advise you to visit Brattonsville’s website, which has more detailed background material on the larger buildings and the Bratton family, so that you can get the most out of a visit.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many interpreters onsite.  Brattonsville has an active and exemplary living history program.  On the day I visited the focus was on antebellum slavery, and there were both lectures, demonstrations, and scripted reenactment scenarios, all of them very well-done.  The personnel were knowledgeable and enthusiastic; they fielded questions with ease, and the visitors were interested and having a good time.  The interpretations weaved the stories of the Brattons and their enslaved laborers together very deftly.

There is plenty to take in, but most of it’s within a fairly compact area.  To check out the buildings and hit the Huck’s Defeat battleground took me a little over two hours.  If you decide to hike the longer nature trails, expect to spend quite a bit longer, because they’re quite extensive.  The visitor center has a small shop, stocked mostly with gift and decorative items, but there are a few southern history books on sale, too.  It’s an extremely pleasant setting, in a rural part of York County; visiting would be an enjoyable experience even for people who aren’t particularly interested in history.

What I find compelling about this site is the fact that it encompasses such a panorama of South Carolina history—the frontier backcountry, the furious partisan fighting of the Revolution, the antebellum years, the Civil War, and the troubled era that followed.  Because the Brattons lived there during all these events, their story is essentially the story of the Carolina backcountry, from its settlement to the late 1800’s.  Historic Brattonsville is a fine example of preservation and interpretation, combining an intimate portrait of one family with the grand sweep of more than a century’s worth of history in one of the most fascinating regions in America.  Put this site on your itinerary when you travel to western South Carolina.


Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

Doing write-ups on the sites

…that I’ve visited here in western Illinois has taken longer than anticipated.  There are some delicate and complicated issues involved with the interpretation at these places, and it’s taken me a while to formulate a response to them.  You’ll see what I mean when I get the posts up.

I’m headed home tomorrow, so it looks like I won’t get them done until I’m back.  Until then, check out this item I spotted in the paper this morning.  It’s pretty interesting.

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Slavery, golf, swimming–something for everybody!

The United States National Slavery Museum has been in the works for years, and until recently I’d totally forgotten about it.  I knew it was the brainchild of L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia’s former governor.  And I knew that the planners considered building it in Richmond or Jamestown before settling on Fredericksburg.  Other than that, I didn’t hear anything about it for a long, long time.

The other day I was idly crusing around Wikimapia, checking out a few historically-significant spots.  When I looked at Fredericksburg, I saw a huge parcel of land designated “Celebrate Virginia,” part of which was marked as the USNSM’s future home.  I had no idea that the museum had been absorbed into some larger entity, and I’d never heard of Celebrate Virginia.  I assumed it was some kind of statewide preservation initiative, until I looked at the official website.

It’s…well, it’s a little hard to explain what it is.  It’s basically a shopping and entertainment development, but with a few twists.  Head over to the site and click on “Attractions,” and you’ll see what I mean.  You’ve got your Africa-themed water park, your golf course, your “Eco Adventure”—nothing like a massive land development to help you immerse yourself in some natural tranquility—and your slavery museum, for which the development company set aside a chunk of turf.

I’ve often found myself hurtling down a water slide while thinking, “If I could towel off, spend a few hours learning about man’s inhumanity to man, grab some Olive Garden, and then do a little shopping, this would be the perfect day.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m glad we’ve got a developer who’s interested in a worthy cause.  But the association of a major educational and research institution (especially one devoted to slavery) with a shopping-dining-entertainment complex is more than a little bizarre.

Anyway, it might be a moot point.  From what I could find out by cruising around online, I don’t think the National Slavery Museum will open anytime soon.  And after reading this news story, I can see why.  Gov. Wilder’s approach to PR leaves a lot to be desired.  When a reporter contacted him last year to find out how things were coming along, he replied, “If you want to help raise some money, then help.  Other than that, quit worrying us.”  I can hear those checkbooks being whipped out already.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites