Thursday, April 7, 2011

Civil War Plenary Raises Key Questions

The panelists and the audience raised important, thoughtful questions during tonight's Civil War Plenary session.

After a totally appropriate, and well-deserved, shout-out to Dr. Patrick Moore for the impressive job UWF has brought to the conference, the panelists worked off a general theme, introduced by moderator Dr. Carroll Van West of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.  His comment came out of earlier remarks he gave at the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial opening event last November:  Why does the Civil War matter today? It was a terrible fire that consumed so much of the old that it left a great sense of loss in the center of ourselves, but it was too a fire that ignited two flames that burned ever so brighter as the decades passed--the flame of a united strong nation, and, the flame of freedom that burst into a fire of its own some 100 years later to consume the rest of the worst of the old."

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley first addressed the centrality of the slavery issue to the coming of the war and the secession of the South, pointing the audience to the evidence of the secession commissions, the congressional records, and the failed Washington Peace Conference during 1860-1861.  Charles Dew's important book, Apostles of Disunion, is a great way to read more evidence about the concern to protect slavery found in the South that Pitcaithley discussed. 

Dr. Connie Lester voiced concerns that the 150th commemoration of the Civil might not be so different than those of the past if the dialogue stayed rooted in debates about battles, the violence, the issues, and the causes.  She challenged the audience to look more closely at women, and how they approached issues of "secession, war, and loss."  She used the diary of Lucy Virginia French, who lived in southern Appalachia Tennessee.  French, like others, was not the sheltered southern belle of lore, but one active in her community, who worked with other women to agitate against secession and who later recorded how your community leaders, in 1867, used Confederate and Union veterans to successfully stop the KKK from organizing in her town.  Lester also discussed how Unionists and "secesh" negotiated public space in towns across the South during the occupation periods of the war, and how that learning to live together despite profound differences might hold lessons for today's culture wars.

Michael Allen related how as a southern African American man working at Ft. Sumter in S.C. for 30 years, he had faced and moved beyond the fundamental question he faced in his first days at the National Park Service--why are you here?  Once that question reflected everything about the visitor experience at Civil War properties--the literature, the exhibits, everything spoke as if this war had nothing for African Americans.  Allen has played an important role in challenging that cultural assumption, and he related steps taken to make sure that the 1960s commemoration isn't repeated.  He spoke about the importance of commemoration, observance and rememberance and talked about how it was possible to sit down with both the SCV and the NAACP in the same room and work out ways of moving forward.  He argued from experience that the key was to engage communities, at the first, as a fundamental way of developing programs, and not at the end of the process.

Dr. Tim Smith closed the panelist section by reminding everyone that it was correct to expand narratives into new themes but "we can't forget the battles and the battlefields; after all it was a war."  He discussed the five generations of battlefield preservation for the Civil War, and pointed out a gap in our understanding--we know fairly well about the NPS battlefields--how they got started, why, by whom, for whom?  But the many state and non-profit managed parks--we know, and they seem to know, next to nothing.  Yet the great many state and local parks may have a defining impact on how many southerners and westerners think about the war years; after all these are the parks they have nurtured.

The audience questions took these themes and stretched them into new themes, and further questions.  Why don't more sites use the actual voices of slaves, available from the WPA project of the 1930s, in their interpretation?  Slavery obviously was the not the reason the North fought--does that shape the debate in ways that leave the North out of the equation of what "caused" the war?  How is the evolving dialogue between the SCV and NAACP really working in Charleston?  Wait, can't we legitimately "celebrate" part of the Civil War narrative, in that it did end slavery, redefine citizenship, and fundamentally (eventually that is) reshape the relationship between the national government and citizens through the 13, 14, and 15th amendments?  What about the economic divisions of 1861--an agricultural South and an industrial North?  What about the battles and conflicts, including Reconstruction, that happen after Appomattox--will those be ignored in 2015?  How can we reach new audiences and immigrants to the United States?  Is the theme of music--and how the songs of the war changed as the war took more and more out of the nation--given enough attention in present-day Civil War interpretation?

The range of these questions suggest that as public historians we head into the Sesquicentennial with a far different mindset than the Centennial.  At the same time, we have many unresolved questions and issues, that deserve more research, and certainly call for more dialogue and engagement as the events of 2011-2015, or is it 2020?, unfold before our eyes and ears.

The large crowd pushed the panelists, and in return the panelists offered plenty of food for thought.

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