History as a Mirror

Yesterday in Culpeper County, the Freedom Foundation dedicated a new monument and several interpretive markers at Maddensville. The monument recalls the entry of the USCT into the war in Virginia and the execution of three of them by Confederates on May 8, 1864. Below are my remarks at the dedication, posted here not because they include much new about the history of the USCT, but rather because they speak to the importance of such efforts to remember. This is a post about the importance of public history rather than history itself.

Photo courtesy of Bud Hall

It’s easy to think of this simply as the dedication of a new collection of markers and memorials. It is that, of course, and proudly so. But today, I ask you to think about this effort in a different way.

It is part of an inexorable, inevitable, and indispensable process of change. It’s a change in how we see and understand our past by seeing not less of it—as has been our societal inclination—but more of it. 

In terms of public history—and especially in terms of the Civil War—what we have witnessed in our lifetime is the equivalent of taking a pair of binoculars and turning them around. Instead of magnifying the view, we have expanded it. We of course still see sites like this through the lens of the individual, vivid and human. But ever more, we see sites and stories like these through the lens of our national experience. And, when we do, we see how more of us fit into and have been affected by that experience.

The work of public history is like the work of a mirror. 

Sometimes, when we look in a mirror in the morning, we really like what we see; we go off to the day inspired and energetic. History is the same way. When we hold the nation’s mirror up to the public, they see or learn much that is beautiful, uplifting, thrilling, humbling. We can see in our past triumphant struggle, astonishing progress, places of quiet and beauty and grandeur and, like this one, courage. For those of us working in this business of history and preservation, it is a great joy to send people away inspired and excited.  We do it every day, and that’s good–essential. 

But how many times have we looked in the morning mirror, and maybe our hair is amiss, or we look tired, worried, a little worn from the previous night’s activities? And what do we do?  Well, most of us usually try to tidy up, get more sleep, relax, maybe go easy on the Tequila next time. We comb our hair, at least.

We try to fix what seems amiss in the mirror. 

History’s mirror can likewise be unflattering.  We see a past rife with injustice and inequity and pointless violence; we see a present often framed by willful ignorance about our past. We see history appropriated and misrepresented. These are difficult things. 

It’s beyond the ability of public historians to fix these things. But it is the job of public historians and the communities they work within to hold the mirror up and help people see the past clearly.  Some, inevitably, will turn away and choose not to see.  But my experience is that most people, like presumably most of you, consider carefully what they see and do their part to help fix what’s amiss—to understand how our past has shaped our present and to act. 

A look in the mirror doesn’t always make us feel better, but it invariably makes us better.  

The dedication of this monument and these exhibits expands our view of not just this community’s past, but our nation’s past, and it does it in essential ways.  

It is impossible to overstate how profound the sight must have been as men of the United States Colored Troops marched into Culpeper County on May 5, 1864. It was certainly profound to those men in uniform:  some of them had been enslaved here; probably two-thirds of them had been enslaved somewhere.  Now they fought for freedom, sensing that the freedom of others—of all—would transform the nation.  

Their presence here reflected a momentous change in this nation’s relationship with the institution of slavery. In many ways, enslaved people fleeing bondage helped forced that change. In 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands fled farms and plantations in Culpeper, Orange, Spotsylvania, and a half-dozen other counties, emancipating themselves, flooding into the camps of any part of the US army they could find:  By presenting themselves, they challenged the nation:  What are you going to do with us now?

War, and these people, forced the United States to choose between slavery and freedom. And for the first time in its four-score and five years of history, the United States chose freedom.

Here, on these roads and on this ground, some of those former bondmen returned in blue uniforms, and here they undertook the work of an army.

That they did represents by itself a deed of immense courage. Understanding that or any achievement also requires understanding the obstacles. The obstacles and dangers for these men were immense.  

They faced racism and discrimination within the Federal government, within the US Army. They received less pay than white soldiers; they sometimes received second-rate equipment; only white officers were permitted to command them.  And white soldiers often viewed them not as warriors, but as laborers, and the army often used them thus.

They also faced threats from their enemies unlike any white soldiers had to consider. In early 1863, President Jefferson Davis declared the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man” and he threatened that USCTs would be executed or sent back into slavery if captured.  Months later the Confederate Congress passed a resolution stating that white officers of black regiments would be “put to death or otherwise punished for inciting servile insurrection.” (Indeed, the USCT’s were the embodiment of one of the largest servile insurrections in history.) 

Despite the threats, more than 180,000 men of color enlisted in the United States Army—about 10% of all soldiers.  More than 40,000 of them would die.

The Confederate threats against these uniformed men of color mobilized the federal government—and even some white soldiers and the Northern populace—to the defense of the USCTs.

Lincoln’s General Order 252, July 31, 1863.  Lincoln:

“For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed,” Lincoln wrote. “For every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”

In mid 1863, Lincoln suspended prisoner exchange because the CS refused to exchange USCTs. 

It was because of this that prison camps North and South started filling up to deadly levels.  Not until 1865 did the Confederates agree to the exchange of USCTs.

The Northern response deterred the Confederates from systematically fulfilling their deadly threats. But still, the soldiers who crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford and came down these roads in May 1864, knew dangers remained.  They knew that at Fort Pillow, Milliken’s Bend, and Port Hudson, Confederate soldiers massacred hundreds of USCTs rather than take them prisoner.

Still, the men of color in their blue uniforms came.

They followed the Army of the Potomac to the Rapidan. As the Union forces moved toward the river, Confederate cavalry crossed upstream and swept into Culpeper County. Those were warm days, and some of the USCTs, on their first campaign, straggled and fell into Confederate hands. 

Probably not far from here—we don’t know exactly where–on May 8, 1864, the 9th Virginia Cavalry came upon three of the USCT’s.  We know not their names or their units. We know of them only from a stunningly laconic diary entry by one of the Confederate cavalrymen, Byrd Willis:

“We captured three negro soldiers the first we had seen.  They were taken out on the side of the road and shot, & their bodies left there.”

These types of dangers were ever-present for the USCT. That fact magnifies their achievement.  In the coming months, the USCT would see battle. They would suffer indignities at the hands of their brother soldiers and atrocities at the hands of their enemies.

But, slowly, by service and accomplishment, they started turning minds.  

One Union officer reflected on the trend. 

” I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those…who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation.”

A Sixth Corps soldier, marching toward Spotsylvania via Chancellorsville, passed Black troops:

There is a great change of feeling in this army towards them, and I heard nothing but kind and cheering words to them.”

The ultimate success of the USCT was no antidote to deeply rooted racism, but it certainly marked a major step forward.  The service of the USCT was essential to establishing African Americans as countrymen in the eyes of many who had long refused to see them as fellow Americans. 

The church that rose here across the road after the war, Ebenezer; the success of the Madden family in this neighborhood, now lending their name to the site–these and thousands of other institutions and achievements grew out of the Civil War and the service of the USCT. The efforts of the USCT and those who followed uplifted America in absolutely essential ways. 

And so today we celebrate this small expansion of the mirror that reflects our history back upon on us. We see in that mirror a story of courage and perseverance and accomplishment that can’t help but inspire us. We see also dark contempt that serves as a cautionary tale—that clearly reflects the nexus between ignorance and injustice. 

The USCTs were essential agents of that change. And by gathering here today and shining light on this story, so too are all of you.  

A Revealing New Variant of a Familiar Panorama

A slightly different angle reveals some buildings before unseen

The Huntington Library has a fabulous collection of materials related to the Civil War. Among their items, recently posted online, is this image.

You can find a hi-res, zoomable version of the photograph here. I suggest you open that image in a separate window as we take a deep dive into what the image reveals.

Those of you familiar with Mysteries and Conundrums may recognize this as similar to a panorama we took a look at years ago. The Huntington variant, above, is taken from north of the railroad bridge. While there are some unfortunate blurry spots within it, the image does reveal some buildings not otherwise visible, or not seen as clearly as in other of the many panoramas of Fredericksburg. Let’s take a look.

This photo offers us the clearest and closest wartime view of Shiloh Baptist Church (often referred to as the African Baptist Church) on Sophia Street. The congregation still resides on this site.

In this excerpt, Shiloh stands at right, a simple brick building that until 1854 served as the primary Baptist church in town for residents both white and Black. To the left of it, unfortunately blurred out, is the community ice house. This site (and others in this view) was excavated in preparation for the construction of Riverfront Park. Still farther to the left is the rest of the 700 block of Sophia Street. Note that fencing lines the riverfront at the water’s edge, suggesting that many of the residents maintained some livestock or animals on their lots. The jumble of primary residences, outhouses, fences, and outbuildings in the 700 block of Sophia is hard to decipher, but includes buildings that have become familiar by virtue of later photographs. All are now gone–indeed most have been gone for decades. Today, this area is the new Riverfront Park.

709 Sophia Street, visible at far left of the panorama.

709 Sophia Street

And this famous image of 725-727 Sophia, taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1927.

Looking upstream to the right of Shiloh Baptist, this photo reveals a number of buildings not clearly seen in others. Most obviously, at far right in the excerpt below, is the stone warehouse, which still stands at the end of the Chatham bridge.

Just left of the warehouse is a block of shambly buildings that reflect how many residents of Fredericksburg lived. They all look a bit saggy in this view, and it’s no surprise that none of the four buildings shown in the photo here survive.

If you look just above these buildings–look closely–you can see the burned-out shells of several buildings on the 1000 and 1100 block of Caroline Street. About half the buildings on these blocks were destroyed in the bombardment of December 11, 1862. Today, only two antebellum buildings survive on the river side of the 1000 block.

To the left of the low row of buildings next to the warehouse is the 800 block of Sophia. Most of these buildings stood in what is today the parking lot at the foot of George Street. Of these, only the “Silversmith Shop” at 816 Sophia survives; it’s slightly blurred in this photo, but distinguishable because its gable end faces the street. Just to the right of it are three substantial houses, among them Mills house. This was once the home of Retta Mills Merchant, a great-grandmother of present Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. A veteran of the US army left a memoir of his time in this house in December 1862, and decades afterwards paid Mrs. Merchant a visit–later publishing a photo of the house. The “X” marks where a shell crashed into the house as the soldier slept.

Heading upstream from the stone warehouse…..

Scott’s (or Brown’s) Island looks a good deal more tidy than we know it to be. Indeed, after the war it would serve as a venue for a Confederate veterans reunion in 1884 and as an annual site of a carnival for many years afterward. As late as 1960, city officials pondered using the island for parking (a bad idea never adopted). To the right of that are a few of the abutments to the Chatham Bridge, burned by the Confederates in 1861, wiped out by a flood in 1862, and then burned again by the US army in August of that year, not to be rebuilt till after the war.

Above Scott’s Island loom the four large chimneys of the Union House, the town’s largest boarding house in 1860. It stood in front of what is today the library on Caroline Street–and indeed it served as the precursor to the Lafayette School that would eventually become the library.

At the extreme right of the excerpt is the woolen mill, which stood between Princess Anne and Caroline Streets, immediately adjacent to the Heritage Trail as it goes up the hill. Part of the wheel well of this is still evident.

The Woolen Mill in 1864.

Poke around the image yourself. You may spot some things I missed.

The value of one’s self

From John Hennessy (with thanks to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for providing us with this copy of the letter):

Click to enlarge

Though only a few words, and though at first blush entirely common, this is a remarkable document. It is from the collections of the Fredericksburg Area Museum–in fact it is on display in their present exhibit, “These Old Walls.”  It consists of an exchange between a 24-year-old Stafford County Doctor Augustine S. Mason and Fredericksburg’s dominant slave trader before the Civil War, George Aler (whom we have written about here).  Mason was an 1855 graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School and had been married just six weeks before he wrote this note. He would soon be a surgeon in the Confederate army. In the note he expresses his intent to sell an enslaved man named Thomas to Duff Green of Falmouth, but before doing so wants to know what Thomas is worth, and so he goes to the man who would know–Aler.

What makes this document compelling and ironic is this: Thomas himself carries it to Aler, and presumably returns the answer, which declares him to be worth “no more than 500 dollars.” Aler also asserts that there would likely be few persons willing to buy Thomas “in his present condition.”

We do not know what afflicted Thomas, and we cannot know if Thomas knew the nature of the message he carried between Mason and Aler (odds are Thomas could not read). We do not know either if the sale was ever consummated (it probably was, because the 1860 slaves census shows Mason owned five enslaved people, none of them an adult male). But we can grasp the essentials of the moment: a man subjected himself to and carried to his owner a stark assessment of the value of his own self to the white-dominated world in which he lived. 

Falmouth Dec. 30th 1858

Dear Sir-

I have agreed to let D Green Scott have the bearer Thomas but what would you value him at today.

Respectfully   A.S. Mason

Frdg Dec 30th 1??

Dear Sir-

I think in his condition he is not worth more than 500 dollars. 

It is almost impossible to come at the true value in the market as very few persons would by him in his present condition.

Respectfully   George Aler

 

 

 

Sit-in Corner: July 1960

From John Hennessy:

W.T. Grants, corner of Caroline and William. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

It is likely the place most powerfully associated with the Civil Rights movement in Fredericksburg: the intersection of Caroline and William, at the very heart of downtown. In 1960–long before outlying strip malls rendered downtowns historical curiosities–this corner was the virtual center of commerce and shopping for the Fredericksburg region. Four prominent business sat on the four corners here, three of them major national chains. Department store Woolworths stood on the northeast corner, where R&R Antiques now stands. Across William, on the SE corner, was W.T. Grants (in the old Ben Franklin), a direct competitor to Woolworths both locally and on the national stage. Across Caroline from Grant’s (today it is the antique store next to Crown Jewelers) stood People’s Drug Store, then perhaps the most prominent chain drugstore in Virginia. Local Drugstore Bonds stood on the NW corner.

All three of the national chains had something in common: they all served food at in-store lunch counters. These counters would become a non-violent battleground in the struggle for civil rights.

Much was happening elsewhere that summer of 1860. At North Carolina A&T, students had started sit-in protests at lunch counters in Greensboro, and shortly thereafter enthusiasm for similar protests emerged in Fredericksburg. Problem was, Fredericksburg had no college or university that permitted African-American students, and so the lot fell to high school students to mount the challenge.

Woolworths. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

Local dentist Phillip Wyatt (president of the local NAACP chapter) and community activists Gladys Poles Todd and Mamie Scott worked with the students to organize the protests. They drilled in methods of non-violent protest, preparing for the resistance that would inevitably come. They dressed neatly. They learned not to touch merchandise–lest they be accused of theft. They organized shifts  committed to–by their simple presence–closing the lunch counters in the three chain stores on a rotating basis.

On July 1, 19060, the protests began when eight students walked into Woolworth’s at 1 p.m.  They took their seats silently–some of them reading books–and did not order. Staff quickly put out signs, “This Section Closed.”  For an hour the students rotated between the three stores. As soon as the students left, staff reopened the counters to white customers. And so it would go.  The Free Lance-Star reported that “Police observed the afternoon demonstrations but indicated they contemplated no arrests unless a trespass complaint was filed by a store.”

The sit-ins required extraordinary effort on the part of the students. Most of them lived in the Mayfield section of Fredericksburg and could get downtown only by walking. Every day. In the clutches of summer.

But resistance came in many forms.  Continue reading

What role should NPS historians play in the process of social change?

From John Hennessy

Here’s a profound question that anyone in the NPS has wrestled with, or should:

Should the National Park Service–through its programs and interpretation–facilitate public conversations that lead to social change, advocate directly for social change, or merely reflect those changes after they have taken place?

Here’s my take:  

In the end, the NPS always has and always will reflect the society it serves—or at least those  parts of society that have political voice. For long stretches, America behaved as though it had a single, universal history, whose virtues the NPS faithfully emphasized and promoted. As political power has dispersed throughout or society, so have the demand that both academic historians and public historians in the NPS (and elsewhere) recognize aspects of the American story long overlooked, or even purposely forgotten.  This is not political correctness. This is historical justice within a society built on the concept of equality and justice.

At the 2012 program “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” visitors carried and then shed stones symbolic of slavery.

The NPS today manages sites associated with gay rights, civil rights, the internment of Japanese, the Trail of Tears, and dozens of sites associated with what was once heroically labeled “westward expansion”—a period we today see as a complex mix of aspiration, suppression, relocation, and even genocide. The NPS didn’t lead the Civil Rights or Gay Rights movements.  But we reflect that they have happened. So it should be. And so it should be that our understanding of these sites and stories will evolve over time, as society evolves. History is dynamic.  

Maybe the question I originally posed is too simplistic. Try this instead: are public historians in the NPS (a government agency) observers and narrators of change, or do they have a role in the evolution of a dynamic society?   While I rather emphatically do not see my role or that of the NPS as the agent of social change (as someone asked, “whose change do we choose?”), I think public historians have an important role to play in the process of change, and it is this: 

Using the best scholarship available and thoughtful and dynamic presentation, we need to illuminate brightly the path that brought us to where we are, and then hope that our programs prompt listeners and readers use that information (and, perhaps, inspiration) thoughtfully as they engage in the ongoing quest to improve our nation.

The chasm

By John Hennessy. (This post originally published in 2012, but is worth revisiting.]

Not long ago I did a program in Spotsylvania County on the 1862 exodus to freedom in the Fredericksburg area, something we have written about a good deal. The event was at the new John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania County, a great exhibition dedicated to the history of African-Americans in Spotsylvania. We had a good crowd–60-70 people, about half Black, half white.

The program was fine enough, but what occurred afterwards dropped jaws all around. I can’t explain how it happened, but the Q&A turned into a public forum on the place of the Civil War in our culture, and specifically how African-Americans view the War and slavery. It was as open an exchange about history among people with different backgrounds as I have ever seen. If we could bottle it and repeat it a thousands times, we’d make a difference in the world…

There were harsh, honest words. One man in particular declared that he viewed everything associated with the Confederacy as “toxic.” Another suggested that the Civil War has been and is simply a popular vehicle for helping to maintain white supremacy in America. Others pitched in–politely and productively, though often intensely–and through the room swirled a current of feeling that everyone who was there will remember the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t that everyone agreed; it was that everyone understood from whence other opinions came.

In public history we deal with lots of contrasting ideas and interpretations, for the Civil War was clearly the most complex event in our nation’s history. But every once in a while, from the swirl emerges some clarity–and so it was for me on this day.

I have written fairly extensively about the distinction between personal motivation and national purpose, and how we as a nation have, when it comes to the Civil War, often merged the two.

As these people spoke that day in Spotsylvania (the majority of the speakers African Americans), the source of the chasm that exists between how African-Americans view the war (mostly as it relates to popular culture and politics) and how many white Southerners see it emerged. Virtually every person in that room who rose to speak saw the Confederacy purely in terms of its national purpose–most prominently, its avowed intent (embodied in its constitution) to perpetuate a white supremacist nation that sustained slavery.

Many white Americans–with their intensely personal connection to the war and the Confederacy–speak of the war in terms of the personal motivation of participants (sometimes imperfectly understood), often their ancestors. To those Americans the war is defined not by national purpose, but by personal motivation.

And therein lies the great American chasm as it relates to the Civil War.

To many people in attendance, efforts to deny or redefine the national purpose of the Confederacy in order to reflect more positively on an ancestor or the South is simply offensive, and so the war evokes no connection or inspiration, only hostility.

Continue reading

Some tidbits on Alum Springs

Veterans at Alum Springs

Today it is a park–“Alum Springs,” along Hazel Run just west of the Blue-Gray Parkway. I daresay not many people give much thought to how it came to be or what it was, but in fact Alum Springs has a fairly complex history. Beyond the springs themselves–in the upper end of the park and once productive of waters believed to be curative–Alum Springs was the site of one of Fredericksburg’s few upland mills, the scene of at least two duels, and by legend a refuge for refugees during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

By far the best source on historic Alum Springs is Robert Reid Howison, who became a notable historian of both Fredericksburg and Virginia in the 19th Century. Howison was a lawyer, the brother of Jane Howison Beale, and after the Civil War the owner of Braehead along what is today North Lee Drive. His article “Dueling in Virginia,” [William and Mary Quarterly, October 1924.(Vol. IV, No. 4), pp. 217-218] includes a good deal of background about Alum Springs.  After this excerpt I have posted a number of images of the area today.

…It became a common source of enjoyment to the ladies and more refined men of the town to make up walking parties, and, in the temperate and delicious afternoons of the autumn season to walk out of the town, generally to the spot known as “Alum Springs Rock,” about two miles from the Court House in Fredericksburg. A mill site and dam for the old “Drummond’s Mill” then existed and a lake of pure water of the “Hazel Run” was just in front of “Alum Springs Rock.” In the freezes during he winter seasons this lake was frequented by many skaters. It furnished also the very hardest and best ice, which was eagerly gathered into ice-houses, private and public, in Fredericksburg, and was advertised as “Alum Spring ice,” and highly appreciated. Continue reading

Presidents in Fredericksburg: are there more?

From John Hennessy:

President McKinley in Fredericksburg in May 1900. He is in the carriage, his face toward the camera. Click to enlarge.

Years ago I did a program at the Fredericksburg Area Museum called Footfalls of the Presidents, an offshoot of their Footfalls of the Famous exhibit on notable visitors to Fredericksburg.  The program chronicled the visits of sitting, future, and former presidents to our area. Some visits were incredibly brief (the record for shortness stands at three minutes), others mundane, and some were emphatically important. At least two presidential trips to Fredericksburg involved real or threatened violence, including the first physical assault ever made on a sitting president (Andrew Jackson, though the assault took place during his travel to Fredericksburg).  One president (Monroe) lived in town for several years. Some stopped as a matter of convenience on their way through; others came for momentous reasons.

Judge and historian John T. Goolrick greets President Harding at the 1921 Marine Corps exercises on the Wilderness Battlefield. It was Goolrick, incidentally, who in 1924 would urge the removal of the slave block in downtown Fredericksburg, arguing that it had never been used to sell slaves.

By my count, 31 Presidents have visited the Fredericksburg region at some point in their lives–thirteen of them as sitting presidents.

The list as it stands today is below–given in order of their presidency, not necessarily in the order of their visits.

The question is, does anyone know of any more?

Here is the current list:

 

Washington       

Jefferson      

Madison      

Monroe     

Andrew Jackson    

Van Buren   

John Tyler (Tyler and Harrison visited together on their way to DC for the inauguration in 1841)

W.H. Harrison     

Polk

Taylor

Fillmore

Lincoln (May 23, 1862–see here for more)

Jefferson Davis (March 22, 1862, stayed at the Doswell house on Princess Anne Street)

Andrew Johnson (perhaps the shortest visit–he refused to come off the train)

Grant (never here as president, but in Spotsylvania extensively in 1864)    

Chester Arthur (married Ellen Herndon, whose extended family lived in Fredericksburg; she lived here for several years as a child)

Grover Cleveland (dedicated the Mary Washington monument in 1894)

McKinley (here for the meeting of the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1900)

Teddy Roosevelt (whistle stop)

Taft (whistle stop)

Wilson (in Milford, Caroline County, and almost certainly in Fredericksburg)

Harding (attended military exercises at Ellwood in 1921)

Coolidge (dedicated the new National Military Park in 1928)

F.D. Roosevelt (twice, perhaps three times)

Eisenhower (speech at Mary Washington monument in 1954)

Bush41 (a memorable visit to Goolrick’s)

Clinton (campaign)

Bush43 (South Stafford)

Obama (campaign stop)

Donald Trump (campaign stop)

Biden (wedding at home on Indian Point)

What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?

From John Hennessy:

I have done some speaking on the Civil War Round Table circuit lately. The public reaction to all these things has gotten me thinking, and I offer up a few observations.

A couple years ago I made a short circuit through the Deep South, speaking at two Civil War Round Tables. They treated me exceedingly well, and I enjoyed myself. But (you knew that was coming) the experience made an impression on me for other reasons.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, conferences and invitations to speak at Civil War Roundtables were rampant. I think one year, before Return to Bull Run came out, I received something like 180 invitations to speak at various places.  And wherever I or one of the others who commonly rode the cannonball circuit went, the audiences were large and sometimes (though not always) enthusiastic . (At one appearance I made before the Northern New Jersey CWRT, 31 of 33 people in the room fell asleep during my talk, a record I surely can never approach again. I still give thanks to the two priests in the front row who managed to stay conscious throughout.)naturalist-sullivan-leads-natl-capital-parks-tour-1951

My latest foray into the deep south took me to two large Southern cities, both with long and deep traditions at it relates to Civil War Round Tables. At one, we had 31 people in the room when I spoke. At the other, 38.  Sixty-nine people from metropolitain areas with combined populations approaching 3,000,000.  Average age;  probably well over 60.  One kid, and few young people. Last month I spoke at another CWRT in a LARGE city. Twenty-five people.

We have long been aware of the flagging interest in CWRTs, but I confess this was a bit of a splash to me (I was told the audience for my talks were typical). Friends and colleagues confirm similar experiences across the country. While some CWRT’s continue to thrive, Clearly, the Civil War Round Table as we have known it–once the foundation for interest in and advocacy for Civil War history–is stumbling, suffering from lack of interest.  Is it because interest in the Civil War is flagging across the board?  At some sites (including ours hereabouts) attendance has dropped 30-40% since 1995 or so, though in recent years the numbers have stabilized, and indeed the last couple have risen.  Or is the Civil War Round Table format just not the medium people use to engage their interest in the war?  Or, as some have suggested to me, has the move to broaden interpretation of the Civil War–to address more than the traditional military story–turned off the traditionalists, the very people who are often most engaged with CWRTs?

These are questions honestly asked.

 

History, Citizenship, and a Better Nation

From John Hennessy:

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Last weekend, I had the true honor of giving the keynote address at a naturalization ceremony at Chatham. I had never been to a naturalization ceremony before. Thirty-six people became citizens, and probably 150 came to watch.

I have been involved in thousands of  public programs in my career, but this ranked in the top five, easily.  Witnessing something that truly matters is always a powerful thing, and this mattered–to the people receiving their citizenship, and, truly, to the people looking on as well. The day included none of the strained, polite applause that characterizes graduations or award ceremonies. Instead, there was unadulterated joy–from the participants and those watching.

The invitation to speak prompted some thinking about the nexus between history, citizenship, and our ongoing pursuit of a better nation. Here is what I had to say.

From the first days of our nation, Americans have challenged America to be better.  It’s a noisy process, sometimes raucous, sometimes even ungraceful.  But the result is unmistakable: from its beginning, our nation has traveled an arc of change that has led us away from oppression and toward equality and justice. We have meandered to be sure, and sometimes we have taken steps backward.  But the general arc of change is undeniable:  by the efforts of every generation we have progressed, become a better nation–more just, more tolerant. 

Citizenship is an invitation to join in that process of change—to join the chorus of Americans challenging America to be better.  We challenge ourselves in a million ways, by acts and words.   A gesture on a street corner challenges others to be as kind. Putting our children on the school bus each morning challenges us to be as conscientious. We challenge America to improve by voting or volunteering or raking your neighbor’s leaves, by teaching tolerance and confronting intolerance. 

Joining this process of national improvement is perhaps the greatest of all the privileges of being an American citizen. 

As we sit here today, I ask you to think for a moment about the path to citizenship.  Continue reading