This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
To Freeman Tilden, provocation was an essential ingredient to effective interpretation, and I tend to agree with that idea. Both my walking tour at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the interpretive exhibits at Chatham Manor utilize provocation in different forms, with different challenges and opportunities. Overall, the atmosphere of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is one that supports and encourages provocative thinking by visitors.
Just over a week ago was the 152nd anniversary of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Although that number may not be as big a deal as the 150th anniversary a few years ago, there was something else special about this year. For only the seventh time since 1865, April 9th fell on Palm Sunday, just as it did on the day that Grant and Lee met in the McLean House. Not only was I lucky enough to attend this commemoration, but I was able to revisit the job I held over the summer by volunteering that weekend. Arriving on Friday, I donned a volunteer uniform, attached my nametag from the summer, and walked out into the surprisingly cold air.
Luckily the weather was vastly improved on Saturday and Sunday, as hundreds of visitors flocked to the small village far out of the way of most tourists. Volunteers greeted visitors at the parking lot and helped to answer questions across the site. All weekend, interpretative programs were delivered on topics including Union General Philip Sheridan’s 1865 Central Virginia campaign, the United States Colored Troops at Appomattox, and the surrender proceedings themselves. Reenactors, both Union and Confederate, camped within the park, carrying out firing demonstrations to represent the fighting within and around the village and recreating the stacking of Confederate arms. Continue reading “Appomattox: 152 Years Later”
At around 5:20AM on March 4, 1861—Inauguration Day—the Senate voted 24-12 to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would permanently preserve slavery in the states where it currently existed. If successfully ratified, it would become the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—and hopefully avert the secession crisis and the impending Civil War. However, only six states had ratified the amendment by early 1862, and the amendment died soon after. The last attempt to stop the Civil War, an attempt which had been in the works since shortly after the presidential election, had failed.
Two potential reasons for its failure were the speed with which the secession movement acted and the inability of Southern moderates to realize the threat the movement posed. In the almost immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, the secession movement was rapidly gaining steam in the Deep South. Just days after the election, South Carolina’s state legislature called for a state convention. A month later, South Carolinians elected delegates to the convention, and two weeks later—on December 20th—South Carolina seceded from the Union. Many Northerners—convinced most of the pro-Secession voters were being brainwashed by radical politicians—did not take this movement seriously at first and Republicans in particular saw no need to do anything about it, least of all compromise.
This post is the fourth in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section. Read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.
Thus far we’ve talked about predominately white Union and Confederate views of the Confederate flag, so for my last piece on perspectives during the war I want to talk about the views of African Americans. For African Americans, especially, the Civil War was tightly intertwined with the matter of slavery. They realized that the outcome of the war would be instrumental in determining the fate of slavery as an institution and believed that a Confederate victory would be detrimental to the prospects of their freedom. If Southerners had their way, slavery would likely never die.
None express this better than Frederick Douglass, one of the most eloquent and influential African Americans of the time. In his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, Douglass printed a copy of a lecture he delivered on June 30, 1861. He stated that slaveholders “have written piracy and robbery upon every fold of the Confederate flag” and that “they are for slavery, and for all its kindred abominations.” Douglass leaves no room to doubt that the flag stands for human atrocities. He also sees no difference between slaveholders and Confederates. They are one and the same to Douglass and many other African Americans.
While many minority groups have had their contributions and accomplishments during the Civil War recognized, one group of Americans has received little attention. Muslim Americans are rarely the focus of Civil War scholars and are typically viewed as a demographic relevant only to more modern history. This should not be the case. In fact, Muslim Americans have served in virtually every armed conflict in United States history and left their mark on every era, including the Civil War. A simple search using the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) reveals several names associated with Islam, including two Mahomets, two Hasans, three Rahmans, three Alis, 17 Saids, and 58 Hassans. In his Muslim Veterans of American Wars, Amir N. Muhammad theorized that as many as 292 Muslim last names appear in muster roles. Additionally, as many as 15% of African slaves brought to America are believed to have practiced Islam. While these summary statistics provide an overview of the scope of Muslim American involvement in the Civil War Era, their personal stories truly show their importance in shaping America.
Hajji Ali, an Ottoman camel driver, landed in Indianola, Texas aboard the USS Supply in 1856. Recruited by the U.S. government, he was to take part in one of the oddest military experiments in the pre-Civil War Era. A year earlier, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis convinced Congress to create the Camel Military Corps to patrol the newly acquired lands in the desert Southwest. When the camels arrived from the Ottoman Empire, they were met with awe and amazement from locals. The U.S. soldiers assigned to the new Camel Corps were equally bewildered and were unable to manage the exotic beasts. Enter Hajji Ali, nicknamed Hi Jolly by his American comrades. The first mission for the camels was to bring Lt. Edward Beale on an expedition searching for a possible Southern route for the transcontinental railroad. Sadly, and indeed ironically given the mastermind behind the creation of the Corps, the Civil War dashed any hopes for the future of the Camel Corps. Hi Jolly lived on, and became a local legend along with the dozens of camels that roamed the Southwest for years. Continue reading “Profiles in Patriotism: Muslims and the Civil War”
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, declaring slavery illegal in the United States. Or so it seemed. The second line of the Amendment, and the most oft unknown, states that slavery can still be used as a form of punishment for crimes, and this practice became widely used as a part of southern backlash to Reconstruction Era policies. After the end of the Civil War, many southern states struggled with rebuilding their infrastructures and government systems. In order to avoid falling into more debt, many of these states turned towards the convict lease system, which claimed that the state prison could lease out its convicts to local companies, usually in industries such as mining, lumbering, and railroad building, to not only house prisoners inexpensively but also regain the means of labor they had with slavery before the Civil War. By adopting the convict lease system, southern states were able to earn revenue and control the suddenly free black population of the South, and with the development of black codes, these states were able to legally disenfranchise African Americans up until the 1930s when Alabama became the last state to abolish the convict lease program.
Many historians and history textbooks will say that the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery. While this sentiment is true, there is more behind the reasoning than traditionally taught. Many in Congress believed that slavery was detrimental to white laborers in the South because slaves were seen as a long term investment, and white laborers were unable to make advancements because slavery was less expensive in the long run. Therefore, by abolishing slavery, they would even out the playing field, and whites would have more opportunities. For southern elites, the abolition of slavery meant the loss of a major working force, and because racism had not ended with the end of the Civil War, southern states looked to create a system that would enable them to maintain a steady work force as they began rebuilding and industrializing their states. The states turned to convict leasing, an idea that was not unique to the period after the Civil War but grew exponentially in the Reconstruction Era.
The week before Dedication Day I had the privilege of interviewing keynote speaker and Emmy Award-winning actor LeVar Burton, who has starred in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Reading Rainbow. I knew this was the perfect opportunity to engage in a serious dialogue about race, as the most dramatic and consequential presidential elections had been decided just a week previous, and I was thrilled when Mr. Burton answered all of my questions with poise and understanding, charging head-on into difficult but immensely relevant topics. The messages he conveyed are powerful and will stick with me as I navigate the political climate of the next four years (and beyond), and his call to action has encouraged me to seek meaningful and effective ways of promoting tolerance and pursuing change. I know his words will have the same effect on many of you.
I extend my sincerest thanks to Mr. Burton not only for agreeing to be interviewed, but for giving all of us something to think about. Here is what he said.
The Gettysburg Compiler: Considering the historical significance of Gettysburg and the role of race in the Civil War, how can we create and foster dialogue about race on campus after this month’s election results?
LeVar Burton: My decision since [the election] has been to rededicate myself to the work I consider my life’s mission. In the service of that, I’ve promised myself that today and tomorrow and Saturday and every day I am able, for the remainder of my life, to speak my truth. Having grown up a black person I have often times held my tongue when I wanted to say what was in my heart for fear of offending the majority population. However, the difference between where we are now and Lincoln’s time is the majority population is no longer the majority. This country has changed dramatically. The Civil War and the necessity for Lincoln’s address in Gettysburg was in response to a changing America, even then. Continue reading “Sticking to His Plan: An Interview with Dedication Day Keynote Speaker LeVar Burton”
On September 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was opened to the public after almost two decades of planning and more than a century of fighting for a memorial for African Americans. Starting in 1915, when a group of United States Colored Troops sought a memorial for their fallen soldiers, African Americans have worked to have their history remembered on a national scale. A congressional commission for a museum dedicated to African Americans was signed in 1929 by Calvin Coolidge, but the stock market crash in October prevented the museum from being built. The memorial was pushed to the back burner until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s galvanized the need for a museum again. In 1986, a joint resolution proposed by Representatives Mickey Leland of Texas and John Lewis of Georgia as well as Senator Paul Simon of Illinois marked the beginning of the modern fight for a museum dedicated solely to African Americans.
The representatives faced strong opposition from Congress about the museum. Perhaps the strongest opposition came from Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) who argued in 1996 that “once Congress gives the go ahead for African Americans, how can Congress then say no to Hispanics, and the next group, and the group after that?” Helms even went as far as stating that as long as he was in the United States Congress, there would be no museum. Despite this uphill struggle, in 2001 President George W. Bush signed House Resolution 3442, establishing a commission to develop a plan of action for the creation of the museum. In 2006, the location of the museum was finalized, and in 2009 the architectural group Feelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup was announced as the winner of the design competition held in January of that year. On February 22, 2012 the ground breaking ceremony for NMAAHC was held.
The Washington Ideas Forum, a Washington D.C. hot-ticket event, reconvened for its eighth year on September 28th and 29th, 2016. Leaders in politics, policy, race and justice, education, science and technology, and even food met to share ideas and have meaningful conversations at the event hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. From Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Secretary of State John Kerry to author Chimamanda Adichie and chef and founder of Momofuku, David Chang, the best and the brightest were all in attendance.
On the second day of the forum, the national correspondent of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, conversed with the presidents of two elite universities: John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University and Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard University. The three talked about the roles of the universities in acknowledging and reconciling with their histories of slavery and discrimination.
Last fall, CWI Fellow (and now Gettysburg College graduate) Megan McNish ’16 shared this reflection on the experience of commemorating the Civil War in spite of having no family members who were in America during the conflict. A few hours later, we received a notification that someone had responded to the post.
We receive many comments on the Gettysburg Compiler, and not infrequently do they come from adherents of the Lost Cause mythology. Few comments, however, have been as detailed and historically problematic as the one Megan’s post received. We invited the Fellows (past and present) to respond with their own comments to different parts of the argument, and now we are publishing their compiled responses along with the original comment.
The text in the gray boxes below was originally published by the commenter as one long paragraph. We have divided it into sections (though maintained the original order) so that the Fellows’ responses could be inserted immediately after the sections to which they refer. We have also changed visible URLs into hyperlinks for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Apart from these tweaks, no edits have been made to the content, grammar, style, or spelling for either the Fellows or the original commenter. Not every possible critique of the comment is included below as each student was asked to hone in on one or two parts that they thought would most benefit from further discussion and context.
Feel free to share your own impressions and reactions in the comment section.
The comment begins:
I commend your passion on this subject and it is truly an honor to read about a youth that studies history. I would however like to set the record straight about the Civil War and the real reasons it was fought. This War just like many others throughout history were fought over greed. The South did not betray their fellow countrymen but rather the North oppressed the Southern states with unfair taxation and think about that for a moment UNFAIR TAXATION. Does that ring a bell think the Boston Tea Party.
Ryan Nadeau ’16: What makes a tax unfair? Certainly, the case can be made for taxation without representation, as it was during the Revolution. By our standards of representative democracy, that’s just fine. However, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had plenty of representation. In the Thirty-sixth Congress, which sat from 1859 to the opening days of 1861, the states of the Confederacy held twenty-four of the sixty-six seats in the Senate (two for each state) and sixty-six of two-hundred and thirty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. Admittedly, this number for the House seems unusually low– and it was. Had the South abolished slavery, they would have received significant increases to their political representation. The Three-Fifth’s Compromise, as outlined in the Constitution, recognized only three out of every five slaves towards the population of a state when accounting for representation. Continue reading “Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause”