African American Perspectives on the Civil War: A Study from Georgia

The period 2011 through 2015, commonly referred to as the “Civil War Sesquicentennial” or “Civil War 150”, marks the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, a watershed in American history. Throughout the country, national parks, battlefields, and other National Park Service (NPS) sites will offer interpretations of Civil War activity and reflect upon the theme “From the Civil War to Civil Rights,” an idea that requires specific recognition of the change in attitudes of groups impacted by the war over time.

In Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, Robert Cook asserts, “…race was a principal fault-line. The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War.”

Given the intersection of the centennial commemoration of the Civil War with the Civil Rights movement, the emancipationist narrative became lost in the pageantry of the Lost Cause and in segregationists’ attempts to link the glory of the past with the then present. This is evident in the multitudinous memorials and statues that commemorate the role of Confederate forces on the battlefields of Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, Shiloh in Tennessee, Vicksburg in Mississippi, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial aims to address these issues of the past and to provide a means of ensuring that all histories are adequately represented for modern public audiences.

So begins the introduction to a report from the National Park Service, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University. That report, titled Assessing African American Attitudes Toward the Civil War; The War of Jubilee – Tell Our Story and We Will Come, offers a fascinating and thoughtful look at how African Americans view the Civil War, and also, the public spaces that commemorate the war. The report was issued in January 2011.

The study was prompted by the acknowledgement that in the past, the full story of the Civil War – specifically, the story of African Americans during the war – has been marginalized or even ignored by “public spaces,” such as national parks, battlefield sites, and museums. As a step toward developing programs – including tours, site markers, presentations, and printed materials – that reflect the full history of the Civil War, the staff at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (KEMO) in the Atlanta area conducted research to assess African American views toward the War, and the Park. KEMO partnered with the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University to conduct the research.

{The Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is located in Cobb County, Georgia, which is in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area. The Park area was the site of heavy fighting between Union forces led by Major General William T. Sherman, during his Atlanta Campaign, and Confederate forces led by General Joseph E. Johnston. KEMO is operated by the National Park Service.}

The study was conducted by holding several focus group discussions with African American organizations and groups in the Atlanta area. Comments from those group discussions are included in the study, and make for very interesting reading.

The research project developed a number of findings:

An analysis of the audio-recorded focus group sessions demonstrates varying levels of skepticism and optimism among respondents regarding the Civil War museum interpretations at Kennesaw Mountain National Battleffield Park and other historical sites. Initial skepticism about KEMO and NPS’s willingness to expand its interpretation is compounded by a suspicion of the nature of that historical interpretation. While the different groups demonstrated a strong desire to know more about the African American experience during the Civil War, there were strong feelings amongst the participants that the history of African Americans and the Civil War will continue to be misinterpreted in the South.

The predominance of the Southern Civil War “Lost Cause” narrative presented a second area of concern. The groups suggested that the Civil War, as it is taught in the South, offers a one-dimensional look at African Americans and reduces the conflict’s complexities to a “memorial” of a distant and better time.

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