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.

 As I have written elsewhere, at least some African-Americans view the National Park Service as party to an ongoing “celebration” of the war that only glorifies the Confederacy and its heroes. Hence, African-Americans stay away from the sites the NPS manages.

I think we can all “get” white Americans’ personal connection to the Civil War, and we “get” their discomfort with talking about the issues that surrounded it, and we can even understand why some (spanning generations) would try to redefine the war to something far simpler and neater than it in fact was (though we may not agree). But it would be impossible to be at John J. Wright that day and not also “get” why African-Americans see the war (and its heroes and symbols) so differently–through the lens of national purpose–and why they find the war’s and the Confederacy’s place in American culture today so troubling.

For both public historians and the nation at large, this chasm represents a great challenge.

It also emerged in our discussion that there is serious collateral damage amidst all this: in disconnecting from the Civil War, the African-American community has also separated itself from the history and evolution of slavery–and freedom. The nature of slavery has, of course, been a pawn in the larger effort to redefine the Confederacy–the images of the “happy slave,” the myth of black Confederate soldiers, the relentless effort to minimize slavery’s harshness. Add to that the historical hesitancy of public history sites to talk about slavery, and we are left with a monolithic view that in subtle ways continues to degrade the victims of slavery and does nothing to inspire modern Americans to connect with the story to overcome that monstrous injustice.

In fact, of course, the history of slavery is in part the history of enslaved people’s struggle for freedom, be it within the bonds of slavery or absolute freedom beyond. Historians have shown that this is a rich, textured story, fraught with both ugliness and inspiration. By disconnecting from that story–by throwing the story of slavery out along with the legacy of the Civil War, and by seeing enslaved people as simply the recipients of freedom rather than participants in its creation–we as Americans have done a profound historical injustice to those who struggled so mightily for generations to endure, change, or end bondage in our nation.

Isn’t it time to stop forgetting and start remembering?

5 thoughts on “The chasm

  1. somewhat painful to read your narrative… because it’s pretty dead on with the issue… but as a frequent visitor to local battlefield parks and others across the state and in other states, the appearance of black visitors is rare.

    I’m still chewing over the thesis about personal motivation and national purpose especially with regard to the not too subtle behaviors of some who do seem to celebrate the basis for the war and to glorify the perceived purposes of what people were fighting for.

    I applaud you for the courage to write about your experience. Some would have walked away and tried to forget the experience but a principled person cannot easily do that…

    I have asked more than once why.. if we say we’d like to have a Slavery Museum why.. in Spotsylvania County – the locale in the book/movie ROOTS would not be worthy of a replica plantation that told the true story of slavery life and so far.. I either get no answer or admonishment to not pick at scabs.

    I know… that the folks who know history in our area can probably point to the actual lands in Spotsy that were known to have used slaves.

    I’m going to digress a small amount here. On Vacation, we spent an afternoon in Cincinnati at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

    there were equal numbers of whites and blacks in the museum but the interpretation throughout the building was from the eyes of black people and I as a white person can palpably feel it.

    I wonder how such a place would go over in Spotsylvania – next to the battlefields….. would we get more black visitation “cross-over” or would the blacks still not find the battlefields a place of history that they could connect with?

    My suspect is that the battlefields as currently interpreted will never appeal but if interpretation including the history of slaves and their lives in Spotsylvania.. it might.

    Are Civil War Battlefields the appropriate venue to do that?

    In places like Spotsylvania where there are many venues for the Civil War should there be one for Slavery?

    If you asked that question of black Spotsylvanians.. would their answer be the same as White Spotsylvanians and white visitors to the Battlefields?

    I don’t know the answers and I fear even asking those questions might cause more problems that provide useful answers.

    what’s very clear is that that war is not really over for some folks.

  2. Excellent post John. When reading about the different responses at your event, I can’t help but think back to the disparity in recollections that I came upon when researching the histories of Fredericksburg Baptist (white church) and Shiloh Baptist Old Site (black church) for my book on F’burg’s churches during the war.

    Even their own recorded histories and testimonies conflicted with one another revealing that their memories of those shared experiences were very different. I don’t believe that either version was intentionally trying to hide or deceive anyone. I just think they sincerely differed in their perspectives.

    So not only do we have the challenge of broadening our modern-day perceptions of the Civil War in regards to race, we must take into consideration that many of the primary sources that we have to work with conflict with one another.

    This clearly illustrates the chasm that exists between the two racial experiences during the Civil War which has remained for generations and is still a relevant challenge today.

  3. John:

    I think your point about it being time to remember is precisely correct.

    It is interesting–a truism says that the victors write the history of war, but in the case of the Civil War that truism was turned on its head and may well be the cause of both the chasm and African-American disconnect. To a considerable extent both North and South ended up agreeing on a historical narrative that may have served their own purposes-and, as they saw it, that of the nation’s-but one that at the same time sacrificed some measure of historical accuracy and ignored salient moral issues. In that regard, it has always seemed to me that the desire for national reconciliation in the aftermath of the war caused and/or necessitated the formation of a consensual historical view of the Civil War that was palatable to both sides. However, that consensus carried a price, particularly insofar as it depreciated, among other things, the central role of slavery as the cause of the war, the very real contributions made by African-American troops to the Union victory, the role of African-Americans as players in the historical drama that was the Civil War and the reality of Reconstruction. Ironically, one of the reasons for that consensus and the historical trimming that resulted from it may have been due to the dissonant views of both sides relative to how their war aims would be viewed vis a vis slavery–the South bound and determined not to be tagged with fighting to perpetuate it and the North (at least in some respects) bound and determined not to be portrayed as primarily fighting to end it. Thus, in some respects a chasm existed from almost the very beginning of the history of the war, with each side stressing subjective intent while glossing over both objective cause and the objective reality that necessarily resulted, or would have resulted, from their war aims.

    I think that the National Park Service has come a long way in dealing accurately with those issues, but in some respects I think its neutrality between the two sides helps to perpetuate whatever disconnect some African-Americans feel with regard to the Civil War. I have toured a great many Civil War battlefields and I have always loved the experience. Yet, if I was an African-American I wonder if I would not be disconcerted, if not repelled, by the fact that the NPS doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the fact that there was a clear moral distinction between the two sides to the war-not in terms of who they were as people, or what they thought they were fighting for subjectively, but what were, or would have been, the objective results of victory. Similarly, while it is truly well and good to acknowledge the skill, bravery and sacrifice of the Confederate soldier, it remains that his subjective experience and subjective motivation for fighting the war should not color the objective reality of what the war was about and what was at stake. I know this may be controversial, but it we truly believe it when we attach moral opprobrium to slavery, shouldn’t there be some acknowledge that it was a good thing that the Confederacy lost the war? Further, I don’t know that it is a slap at the Confederate soldier to point out that there was a divide, indeed a chasm, between what he thought he was fighting for and what was objectively at stake in the war. Being a tragic figure is far different from being a morally reprehensible one. Finally, I think it is wrong to stress the reunification of the nation post-war on equal terms (or more) with the ending of slavery as the source of some measure of national redemption. Yes, the war was a tragedy and it is wonderful that the nation was able to reunite in its aftermath, but that tragedy was preceded, for centuries, by one just as great and one that was ended by the war. And that was a good thing, the true source of redemption (that is, if we mean what we say about slavery), no matter how tragic the war was (Lincoln essentially said the same thing in his Second Inaugural).

  4. “I think we can all “get” white Americans’ personal connection to the Civil War, and we “get” their discomfort with talking about the issues that surrounded it,”

    There are white Americans who identify with the Union, not the Confederacy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s