Leighton Hall, Carnforth, England, 1989. Pictured left to right: Captain Tom Foster, Mary Rayme, and Michael L., representatives of the First Confederate Signal Corps of Maryland.
In creating an imaginary curated exhibition for a local history museum, the Beverly Heritage Center in Beverly, West Virginia, I had an epiphany about how we interpret and present the American Civil War in museums, in reenactments, and in history class. My story starts several decades ago when I was lured into Civil War reenactment by a boyfriend. For a solid year, we attended reenactments in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and even England (see photo above), as part of the First Maryland Confederate Signal Corps. This was a rich and rewarding experience that pushed me headlong into history in a way that I will never forget. (If you want a more in-depth look at the subculture of reenacting, read "Confederates in the Attic" by Anthony Horowitz.)
U.S. Civil War Reenactment
So, what did we do at Civil War reenactments? We wore wool, we practiced semaphore (a binary language communicated with flags), we drilled, and marched. The highlight of most of the reenactments was, of course, the battle. The battles and skirmishes were usually very carefully discussed and considered by fake generals on horseback and other chosen leaders of the various factions attending. Thousands of spectators would turn out to watch the battle and walk among the campgrounds, eager to feel as if they had just stepped back in time. Hundreds of reenactors invested their own money to have authentic uniforms handmade, to buy authentic cotton duck tents, to bring functional artillery and horses to a fake battle that recreated a war resolved on paper in 1865. I met men and women from all over the world who had come to participate or observe. The only African Americans I ever met were dressed in Union uniforms or they portrayed freed African Americans. I never met a Civil War reenactor who dressed up and pretended that they were a slave. In fact, at many reenactments there was a lack of participants that wanted to dress as Union soldiers. Sometimes, there were coin tosses to decide about splitting up sides so that it appeared there was equal participation from Confederates and Federal troops. No lie, most reenactors at the events we attended wanted to be Confederates. Self included. For me, this was an act of historically portraying my ancestors who fought for the South as Virginians and North Carolinians. This was not an act of feeling any sympathy for the South at all. Slavery is a despicable institution and any supporters of slavery need to be eliminated and abolished.
The Beverly Heritage Center
Years later, I worked at the Beverly Heritage Center (as coordinator of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike) for about six years and was involved in the creation of this awesome museum from historic rehabilitation of the buildings to the creation and design of the exhibitions. The museum has one whole building dedicated to interpreting the Battle of Rich Mountain, one of the first land battles of the American Civil War, part of the First Campaign. In what was then still part of old Virginia, the town of Beverly (like many WV towns) was traded back and forth by Union and Confederate troops, though Beverly's sympathies lay largely with the Union. The exhibition at Beverly celebrates the leaders and troops that fought (on both sides) and the strategies employed to create a win for the Union troops. (If you would like more information about the American Civil War in Western Virginia, I recommend Hunter Lesser's wonderful book "Rebels at the Gate.")
Slave quarters behind the Beverly Heritage Center. Photo by Mary Rayme.
So, fast forward to 2015. I am taking a Museum Studies class as one of my last courses of graduate school via the University of Tennessee. One of our assignments is to curate an imaginary exhibition at a museum of our choice. The project I chose was to create a picture of the African Americans, both enslaved and free, who once lived in Beverly, WV, and who helped to build this frontier town. I put together an imaginary exhibition that includes:
* The old slave quarters behind the Beverly Heritage Center
* The Randolph County Historical Society building that was built by slave labor.
* To cross the road between museums, visitors have to use Route 219, once known as the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. This historic road was also used by runaway slaves seeking freedom across the Ohio River in Parkersburg to Marietta, Ohio, an abolitionist community. So part of the Underground Railroad is a piece of the exhibition that will have signage and interpretation.
* Finally, there is a section of Beverly Cemetery that is unmarked where slaves were buried. While this area is too far away for foot traffic, it should be photographed with appropriate signage for full effect.
It is clear from the evidence that exists that African Americans played an important role in building the town of Beverly.
My Civil War Education Epiphany
My big epiphany in planning this imaginary exhibition of the life of African Americans in Beverly, WV, made me realize that we may be teaching Civil War history all wrong. Like, super wrong.
In the exhibitions that we carefully and lovingly created for the Civil War we celebrate the warriors, troops, and generals who fought the Civil War. We talk about the townsfolk, merchants, and farmers. We admire their uniforms, buttons, powder horns, and rifles. We forgot to teach (thoroughly) why we fought the Civil War. We neglected to celebrate the people the North was fighting to free--African Americans. What was it like in early Beverly with freed African Americans and enslaved African Americans living in the same town? Perhaps if Civil War museums focused more on the horrors of slavery and the struggles of African Americans to be treated as equals, maybe we would have less racism overall?
Maybe all Civil War museums should debunk/expand/elucidate the history of the Confederate flag at every exhibition? Original documents such as the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States will be provided to reinforce that slavery was the driving issue of the Civil War. Even in contemporary culture, the issue of slavery has been sidelined in favor of generals and wars. We have had many excellent films about the Civil War, (Andersonville, Cold Mountain, Glory, Gettysburg, Gods & Generals), but not a single film about Harriet Tubman the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Many Civil War exhibits may talk about the issue of slavery, but it is glossed over quickly-- no need to dwell on an unpleasant topic, right?. Wrong. We have chosen to celebrate soldiers over those whose lives and existence were in the hands of their owners and/or other white people. While soldiers fought the war from 1861-1865, slaves lived a life at war. We have chosen to celebrate war waged (mostly) by white people, rather than really taking the time to spiritually weigh and acknowledge our debt to African Americans.
Imagining a Better Way to Teach the Civil War
Imagine it this way: In Gettysburg where every state that participated in the American Civil War raised money to buy monuments to the troops who fought there, what if every state cooperated to create a National Slavery Memorial? What if there was one created in Washington D.C. on the Mall? This idea was proposed in 2003 but never came to fruition. America is clearly not ready to acknowledge the past so that it can move forward into the future with less racism and more tolerance. The Equal Justice Initiative has suggested a national monument system to tag and acknowledge places where African Americans were lynched. I think this is a great start. Americans, and particularly white Americans, need to be reminded that the riches they enjoy today as part of a peaceful and prosperous country came at a very high price. Slaves lived and died to build the United States and they deserve to be acknowledged. Just like the Holocaust, this is an event in history that should not be forgotten.
And what about the after effects of the Civil War on African Americans in Beverly? In the early 1800's there were African Americans, both freed and enslaved, in Beverly, West Virginia. We have evidence of their labor, we know where they lived, we know generally where they are buried. What we don't know is where they went. Today, Beverly is 98% white. In the border town of Beverly, WV, that had split loyalties between North and South, most African Americans likely left for locations where they could thrive and prosper.
Harriet Tubman c. 1885, courtesy of Wikimedia.
More Harriet, Less Ulysses
There is the old cliche that the victors get to write the history and that is certainly the case when we teach and interpret the United States Civil War. While education systems, historians, or media outlets may feign neutrality in talking about the Civil War, there is no way to present history without a bias. Let us consider changing the emphasis in how we teach the Civil War. I say, let's teach more Harriet Tubman and less Grant and Lee-- after all, John Brown called her General Tubman.
You may check out my slideshow presentation that I delivered for Museum Studies course here-- it is entitled "Who Built Beverly?"