Has The Sesquicentennial Been Hijacked?
By Len Riedel
(August 2009 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
The nature of discussion about the American Civil War has changed. We are losing the initiative. The reality is that when the storm has passed there will be a new politically correct interpretation that will tilt the meaning of the war for future generations.
When you examine events through the prism of 150 years of social evolution rather than in the context of the time in which the events took place it is not history but rather social reengineering.
As a proponent of Sesquicentennial Planning, I am sad to report that just nine states have formed sesquicentennial commissions. There is no national commission.
In Virginia, the Blue and Gray Education Society (BGES) planned to be full participants only to discover the state was going to vector all statewide events through one of its universities. During a March meeting at the legislative building in Richmond every idea our organization had, every offer we made and every request we sought was dismissed out of hand.
They were anxious to promote their April conference at the University of Richmond, but made no provisions for any nonprofit groups to display preservation or education-related materials for the assembly of 2,000 people, although I understand they did allow the Civil War Preservation Trust to display.
When we asked about becoming a sesquicentennial partner we were presented a document that required us to be “inclusive and diverse.” What happened to free speech and academic freedom?
A substantial, well-written article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by highly respected Yale University professor David Blight summarized the gathering.
He noted the wonder and wonderment of a group of 16 historians being coached through panel discussions of life in 1859 with the “wink eye” caveat that no one could bring up or justify a point using information that couldn’t yet be known — a logical absurdity designed to open a window into the antebellum period from scholars whose entire reason for existence is not to be a reenactor but rather a historian.
Not surprisingly we discovered that in 1859 we were a racist country and that equal rights for Blacks (or for that matter, women) was not a front line agenda item.
Professor Blight has established a solid reputation writing on Race and Memory; however, when delving into areas of lesser interest to him that reputation may substitute in some people’s minds for expertise.
Race and Memory is what he goes on tour and talks about — see his Web site. Blight spends a fair amount of time in the article to his peers noting the challenges professional historians face in educating the public.
His pivotal quote in “The Civil War Sesquicentennial: The goal should be an enlightening Commemoration” was, “It is not your father’s or your grandmother’s Civil War history anymore, even — and especially — in the South. [MEMORY] Or is it? We shall see.” [MEMORY][http://chronicle.com/free /v55/i38/38blight.htm?utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en,]
Continuing to quote Blight: “The Lost Cause tradition — as both a version of history and as a racial ideology— is certainly still very much alive in neo-Confederate organizations, on numerous Web sites, among white-supremacist groups, in staunch advocates of the Confederate battle flag, and even among some mainstream American politicians. Multitudes still cannot bring themselves to confront the story of slavery as both lived experience and as the central cause of the Civil War.” [RACE]
I have been a military history, strategy and policy, diplomacy and Civil War student for 46 years, hold a master’s degree in history and I find the premise of Dr. Blight’s article disturbing for the profession.
Nonetheless it is what we have come to expect from organizations such as the American Historical Association where a contemporary panel or speaker at any conference on any antebellum subject other than slavery is rarely seen.
Contrast that with a National Council of Social Studies Teachers conference where teachers are working with students at the secondary level. There is a lot of energy there and conferences, programs and panels present numerous derivatives of basic Civil War themes.
What Blight says is in some measure true, but is an unfair generalization. The Civil War is popular because it is the story of us.
Pride and acceptance can be two sides of a single surgical probe into meaning for people who had blood relations in the war. The same is becoming readily apparent about World War II.
People of extraordinary intellect, who are not “academic historians,” have devoted a considerable amount of time in microscopic research in areas that interest them. These independent historians are finding new things all the time.
Blight’s focus has been on one of the defining issues of societal evolution and his insights are enlightening. Yet that does not make simpletons of the current students and buffs nor should it denigrate proud but sometimes-misinformed ancestors of war veterans.
Like Dr. Blight, we at the BGES are educators. We don’t need to certify we will be inclusive and diverse — just join us for hot July marches in the weeds of northern Arkansas or for the early February falling snow in 15 degrees at Fort Donelson looking for abandoned earthworks.
Talk to the ladies and gentlemen on our programs or, for that matter, join us as we take people to sites where black soldiers fought side by side with others along the south side of Morris Island, in the cornfields in Missouri at Island Mound where the first black soldiers fought and fell in 1862 or at Port Hudson and Honey Hill.
Indeed we have taken people to over 400 different battlefields in 16 years. We study the war and its various components white, black, male, female, soldier and civilian, politician and diplomat.
It is the drama of the battle that initially brings people to the study of the Civil War. Those sites define, inspire and educate us. Have a discussion with a legless veteran in a wheelchair from Iraq on Little Round Top for some perspective. We do it eight or nine times a year.
The tragedy is that the resources of the government and well- funded public agencies are being used to shape the discussion without accepting constructive input from people who are seriously engaged.
The sad retreat of the National Park Service to demands to include a display describing the role of African Americans and slavery at each national Civil War battlefield has created resentment because it is disingenuous.
A battlefield is a battlefield — that is the story. It is pandering to a constituency that isn’t coming anyway and is taking precious display space away from a site that people traveled to see and understand.
Dr. Blight and I would find much to talk about and I have and will continue to learn about things in his area of expertise; but he should seriously consider if there is not a problem within his own profession.
What is really more relevant is why are business associations of colleges and universities, such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, honoring boycotts of South Carolina (ACC Baseball Tournament 2010-2012) over the Confederate Battle Flag when black bikers make an annual weeklong trek to the same state?
One gets the sense that even the black community doesn’t understand the issue — only special interest groups such as the NAACP are “enlightened” enough to save well-educated college students from the insidious sting of latent racism.
Recently John Hope Franklin died. So did Michael Jackson. Who was more importance to the society? But who had the largest memorial service? A failure to value the right things? Why is that? Where do they learn it?
Reality is that the black community has shown little interest in any aspect of the Civil War either from a Civil Rights standpoint or in honor of 180,000-plus black soldiers who contributed the first substantial arguments for equality in this United States.
No amount of pandering by the National Park Service, apologies by Congress or other “inclusive” agencies is going to change that.
If academic historians can teach social studies without bias or destructive intent and in the context of our children’s moral and educational development then educated and interested Americans of all races will come to these timeless fields to ponder what was done for them — then we will have achieved success.
What makes a good sesquicentennial? It is not a grants-based issue to be funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it is not a “Lost Cause” issue.
It is the honest fulfillment and fundamental obligation of the story tellers/historians of our society — a true liberal education. What are historians and what should they be? Acceptance and tolerance goes both ways.
Len Riedel is Executive Director of the Blue and Gray Education Society based in Chatham, Va. The organization was founded in 1994 and is known for its high quality programming and charitable activities. For information go to www.blueandgrayeducation.org or call (434) 250-9921.