By John Hennessy. (On this blog we do a lot of history, but also explore some issues of public history. This is the latter–something of a follow-up to an op-ed piece I did in the Free Lance Star last weekend, which you can find here):
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 of 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.