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AfriGeneas Writers Forum

Southern Sources Symposium (continued)

Report on the Southern Sources Symposium, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 18-19 March 2005.

I have always maintained that the Afrigeneas family is part of the process of rewriting the national history. I hope that others will comment on the parallels between what we and these professional historians research and write. Note also the expressed desire by some of these academics to connect somehow with persons outside academia who have stories to tell; how might we connect?

The following summarizes what I gleaned from each speaker.


William Blair: “Civil War History: Deconstructing the Term”

The Civil War means different things to different people; for some, the war started with secession in 1860 and ended in 1865, and consists in the minutiae of troop movements, weapons, flags and and uniforms. There are doubtless still some American households where a copy of Lee’s Lieutenants is as well-read as the family Bible. For others, the War is considered in a much more expansive timeframe that includes abolitionism, the sectional crisis of the 1850s, John Brown’s raid, emancipation and the adjustments after the War known as Reconstruction. Civil War enthusiasts are sometimes characterized as divided into two camps: academic historians whose dry tomes are written for each other rather than as an outreach to the general public, and “buffs” who fixate on whether a re-enactor’s uniform has the correct buttons.

Blair asked, “Question: For heavens sake, do we need another book on the Civil War? Depending on whose estimate you use, there are between 50,000 and 70,000 published titles on the Civil war. The War lasted about 1,460 days, so if we pick a median estimate of 60,000 titles, that comes to 41 books for every day of the war, and we are approaching two books for every hour of the War! Nevertheless, and surely not surprising, since I am a Civil War historian, my answer is, ‘Yes,’ we do need more books about the Civil War.”

There are “surprising gaps in the literature:”
• Not one book devoted to the subject of opposition to the war,
• None on Northern women,
• None on state governments and how they helped or hindered the national war effort,
• None on the meaning of treason and how the courts handled it.

The homefront is still an emerging field of study.

In the academic world, some historians seem to regard the Civil War as suitable subject matter only for “military historians.” As a result, writing (in effect, rewriting) the history of the Civil War is increasingly passing from academics to non-academic historians, “the so-called amateur historians.” Unfortunately, much of the output from the latter falls into the category of “revisionist,” which Blair defined as “ideologically–driven work that ignores objectivity.”

Blair asked archivists to develop a way to catalog collections by topic instead of family name: for example, a master topical guide that points to references across collections. There will be challenges in the terminology to use in such indexes; for example, 19th century Americans did not use the term “civilian” (they used “citizen” or “non-combatant”), and different significances attached to terms: whereas the 21st century person usually thinks of “homesickness” as little more than a melancholy longing for home, Civil War doctors used the term to describe a potentially fatal disease.

Lastly, Blair asked historians and archivists to keep up with each other’s fields so they can work more effectively together.

Thavolia Glymph: Evolving Writings about Reconstruction

The history of Reconstruction has been shaped by what is accessible in the archives. The earliest historians (Dunning, Philips) relied on old newspapers, travellers’ accounts, memoirs, and plantation papers mainly in private hands. The twentieth-century process of transferring so many of these private collections to public archives has made them accessible to researchers who are not so well-connected with old families; nevertheless, archives shape the raw material of history by controlling whose papers are worth collecting; whose voices are worth conserving.

Historians must make a shift in the way they look at Reconstruction: “We have been more concerned with the coming of freedom than with the making of freedom.” The war was about emanciption, but the post-war struggle was about liberty and citizenship. Historians tend to divide over whether Reconstruction was “revolutionary” (W. E. B. DuBois) or “a failure” (Eric Foner). There is a need for historians to illustrate more of black peoples’ part in the struggle over citizenship.*

[* For a review of a recent book on one aspect of the struggle for citizenship, see ]

There is need for more emphasis on the power of the state to steer the course of Reconstruction. During slavery days, white racial identity had been served well by the state’s framework of a trans-national conversion between white men over unity, where blacks were outsiders whose efforts toward citizenship were “disorderly conduct.” Reconstruction included a battle to dismantle this framework now that slavery was gone; would blacks win citizenship, or would whites shut them out in the name of North/South sectional reconciliation?

Historians have examined the changes in the lives of black women from slavery to freedom, but have not examined black women’s rebellion and the need for white women to bargain and negotiate with black women. Elite white women experienced “unimaginable changes” after the war; for example, some planter white women sold homemade goods to earn money, and even took in work, to earn enough to pay wages for black servants. Glymph savored the irony of white planter women reduced to selling their own labor in order to afford a black cook or washwoman to keep up old appearances! She suggested reinterpreting evidence in the light of these changing power dynamics between black and white women; for example; when historians note that emancipated black women often spent their earnings on new clothes, pillows, or other up-scale consumer goods, they sometimes characterize these buys as mere consumerism. They overlook the possibility that these purchases were political acts that demonstrate black women remaking their own images and reconstructing their own lives.

Peter Carmichael: Comments

Thavolia Glymph has not demonstrated why her evidence does not fall into one of the two categories in the old “revolution vs failure” dichotomy.

Part of the description of an archivist should be “Public Historian.” Historians need to learn about intricacies of processing collections; archivists need to keep up with historiography.

(next: NEW SOUTH and JIM CROW)

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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