Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 2: Interpreting the USCT

Other posts on the Conference: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5

One of the greatest challenges of the Future of Civil War History conference was choosing which sessions to attend throughout each day. There were times in which there were as many as seven different sessions going on at the same time, requiring some tough decisions on where to direct my attention. One of the sessions that made the cut was a discussion on interpreting United States Colored Troops at Civil War sites. While not directly related to anything I’m currently researching or studying, I take an interest in the USCT because they were important not only as a military force but also a political one. Through military service, according to Frederick Douglass, blacks had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States,” and many Americans would support a new Constitutional amendment giving African Americans such a right through the 14th amendment because they understood that these men had fought and died for the Union. (It should also be pointed out that voting rights for blacks would not come for a couple more years via the 15th amendment.)

(On a brief sidenote, University of Texas at El-Paso Professor Adam Arenson tweeted me some information today about his research project on blacks who had run away to Canada to escape slavery before the war but returned to fight in the Union military. I’ll be anxious to get a copy of this book when it comes out. He’s also written a book about St. Louis that I just love.)

The panelists were interesting and I enjoyed hearing their comments about the USCT. I wanted to ask questions and get involved in the discussion, but I needed more time to contemplate the panel as a whole. I just didn’t feel comfortable asking questions at that point. After further reflection, however, I believe the discussion took a turn that ultimately kept us from getting closer to devising ways to better interpret the USCT at Civil War sites. I’ll start first by describing some good points.

Kevin Levin from Civil War Memory did a great job of kicking things off by remarking that great changes had occurred in interpreting the war in recent years and that slavery and emancipation were now dominant narrative themes of Civil War history. He reminded us, however, that our continually shifting memories of the war are always accompanied by new questions about the past, and that the history of slavery and emancipation are now waiting for new questions and interpretations to be asked of them. Perhaps an opportunity even exists for a new narrative theme to take over the history of the Civil War. I appreciated Emmanuel Dabney’s call to share the personal narratives of African Americans (including USCTs) with visitors to Civil War sites. Joseph McGill suggested that genealogy could provide an avenue for African American students to take an active interest in the history of the Civil War. Barbara Gannon pointed out that most battle sites where the USCT fought are actually state parks, not national parks, which complicates the narrative of the USCT. I would surmise that it creates financial problems as well.

This said, however, I’m not sure if the discussion on the relevancy of the movie “Glory” on audiences today was effective in helping us devise ideas to improve our interpretive efforts. One panelist in particular, Hari Jones, took shots at the movie and argued that it created an image of “victimization of the victors,” by which he meant that the movie portrayed the eventually victorious black soldiers as illiterate fools who needed to be beaten into shape by white officers. That interpretation may be plausible, and I understand that the movie has its inaccuracies, but does this commentary help us move the future of Civil War history forward? In my opinion, too much time was spent by various panelists trying to convince the audience that the USCT was worth interpreting in the first place, when in reality none of us really needed to be convinced of anything. We were there because we care deeply about creating interpretations of the USCT and all African Americans that give them their proper place and agency in Civil War history. We’ve already been convinced of the importance of the USCT. You’re preaching to the choir.

Dabney remarked that an informal poll he took with visitors at his place of employment (Petersburg National Battlefield) showed that most young people have not seen “Glory.” He and several other panelists also stated that the proper resources to study the USCT were hard to find and access was sometimes blocked by academic paywalls. It seems that resources and mediums in which to interpret the USCT are wanting, and that’s why it was disappointing to hear such little discussion on the potential of digital technology to help in this endeavor.

Barbara Gannon, in my opinion, was the closest to directing the discussion towards a discussion of digital technology. She pointed out that Fort Wagner–site of where the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry engaged in battle for the first time–is now underwater, rendering the site useless for interpretation. Gannon suggested that we use digital technology to create a virtual tour of the battlefield. Although no further discussion by the panelists occurred regarding this idea, I wholeheartedly support it and believe it could be equally effective if not more effective than a showing of the movie “Glory” to young students today. Maybe this site could incorporate the same ideas that have been guiding a new project on Chinese digital caves.

I would also take this a step further. If access to primary sources for USCTs is so tough, why not use this proposed website on the Battle of Fort Wagner as a central database for accessing resources about the USCTs as a whole? I like the idea of creating a site similar to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s “Railroads and the Making of Modern America,” which provides a wealth of interactive graphs, maps, and newspapers over a wide range of sub-topics all related to the evolution of railroads. Why not create interactive maps that show the progress of various USCT troop movements and tactics? How about maps and census records to show us where these men lived before and after the war? What about a collection of newspapers that show the various reactions of whites to the Emancipation Proclamation or the idea of blacks armed and in uniform? Maybe we could use topic modeling to determine if and when there was a change in white attitudes towards the USCT once they proved their valor on the field and died fighting for the American flag.

I think an opportunity to discuss the connections between the USCT, the struggle to access their records, and the use of digital technology to enhance our interpretations of the USCT at Civil War sites was lost when no one took up Gannon’s call for a virtual tour website of Fort Wagner. Such ideas, I believe, are going to play a more vital role in the future of Civil War history than a discussion about Glory’s inaccuracies or relevancy, especially when it was concluded that many young people no longer even watch the movie in the first place. Regardless, I enjoyed the panel for the most part and felt very privileged to meet and speak with Levin, Gannon, Dabney, and McGill afterwords.