Broadening the Narrative: An Interview with Emmanuel Dabney in Three Parts, Part Two

By Val Merlina ’14

Emmanuel Dabney, one of the Civil War Institute Summer Conference speakers, is a park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. At the Summer Conference, “The War in 1864,” he will give a lecture titled, “Catching Us Like Sheep in a Slaughter Pen”: The United States Colored Troops at the Battle of the Crater. In anticipation of the Institute, Emmanuel Dabney answered questions on intepretation, Petersburg, and the future of the Civil War. This is part two in a three part series. Click here to read part one.


Is there a new/renewed conciseness of race in the Civil War with the sesquicentennial events? Of history? Is it different than memory?

I do not think anyone would disagree that the sesquicentennial events have been much more dynamic in terms of addressing race and ethnicity than the centennial events of the 1960s. As you well know, 1960s America was in the midst of a long struggle with coming to terms with embracing the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the impact of the Civil War and the female suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I like to refer to this period as the “Televised Civil Rights Movement” because of the addition of televisions to many family homes which brought to light what many people before only heard about or read about in print. There is no doubt, as recent events have shown, that the struggle continues.

I have been fortunate enough to be asked to participate in 150th anniversary events in 2011 at Manassas National Battlefield where I discussed the James Robinson family who lived on land that became a battlefield in 1861 and again in 1862. In June 2012 as Richmond National Battlefield highlighted the Seven Days Campaign, I was asked to come and portray an escaped slave who was trying to make it to Union lines. That September, I went up to Antietam National Battlefield and spent several days on the Mumma Farm talking to visitors about slavery in Maryland, enslaved people who lived and worked on farms that became the Antietam battlefield, and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that was issued after the September 17, 1862, battle.

In my own park, we have broadened the narrative beyond June 1864-April 1865. In my own programs I have done events to highlight the digging of the initial line of earthworks at Petersburg which started in the summer of 1862 and mostly involved enslaved and free black men doing the work. I have a program in downtown Petersburg about the lives of Petersburg’s enslaved and free black residents before and during the Civil War. Lastly, in 2009 and again this spring I will be doing a program regarding Petersburg’s role in manufacturing, transporting, and importing goods for the Confederate war effort.

Beyond specific programs, the Grant’s Headquarters at City Point unit now serves as a place for visitors to come to grips with the legacies of the plantation complex and the Civil War. Here we have on a micro-level one slaveholding family, the Eppes, and their more than 100 enslaved laborers who for generations lived and tussled with one another in a complex manner. Through research in the immense surviving records, visitors can experience how these individuals experienced the antebellum, Civil War, and post-bellum period. The occupation of the Union troops guided the site into the domain of Petersburg National Battlefield and that story has only been enhanced. We have found the names of one family of free black property holders who were forced to retreat with Union cavalry because of damage to their farm. Contrabands, or runaway slaves, who worked within the Federal supply depot are discussed even when names are unknown. Women who worked in hospitals running kitchens or as nurses are highlighted as well. These subjects, even twenty years ago, were not discussed with any depth.

Memories of the centennial have certainly clouded assessments of the impact of the 150th anniversary. Many remember going to the battlefields as children and there was a swirl of pageantry and thousands of on-lookers. Some have stated that the 150th anniversary has been a failure and others asserted (or at least questioned) if the 150th was over after the Gettysburg commemoration in 2013. Yet, I would say the 150th is alive and not simply because I am working in a battlefield site who has nearly a year of activities to showcase to the public. Old media such as newspapers have featured stories about what was happening 150 years ago. New media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been utilized to bring to light stories about places and individuals that are not the big name sites or the better known politicians and generals. Digitization of records was impossible 50 years ago and now countless museums and archival repositories are photographing artifacts and scanning documents and images.

This year’s Institute will take place from June 20-25, 2014. Registration can be done by following this link: See you there!

Leave a Reply