Going to elementary school in Michigan in the 1980s, Geoffrey Blair learned about the Civil War: a story of Lee vs. Grant, North vs. South. He learned about Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Manassas, and Antietam. And he learned that President Lincoln had freed the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation. But no one ever told him about the nearly 200,000 black soldiers who fought in the war. “I was never taught that blacks actually had a role in the Civil War,” says Blair. “It wasn’t until I had my first college history class that I realized.”
Gallery: The Civil War at 150
Today he’s president of the 102nd United States Colored Troops, Co. B, a Detroit-based reenacting group that keeps alive memories of those black soldiers without whom, Lincoln once said, the Union couldn’t have won the war. Although the historically liberal 1989 film Glory brought a new awareness of black soldiers to many Americans, “we still do get looks,” says Blair, who portrays a corporal in the unit. “We get questions like, ‘Where do they come from? I didn’t know there was a black regiment that fought in the war.’”
But while Blair’s avocation is unusual, his experience is not. Historians, educators, and politicians worry that many blacks don’t know and don’t care much about the Civil War—even though it’s the pivotal moment in African-American history. So with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War beginning this spring, they’re pushing for ways to make sure the black community is invested in commemorating the war, including a new emphasis on the role of slavery as the primary cause of the war—pushing back Confederate apologists who insist the war was fought over states’ rights.
“I’m for an interpretation of the war that includes more Americans,” says Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who’s been a major driving force of the changes. “The federal government, which draws its strength from having saved the union, is under an obligation to tell a broader story at the battle sites that it has preserved, and that includes an interpretation of American history where people can better understand the causes and effects of the war.”
But it’s a difficult battle, facing obstacles from lack of funding, political opposition, and apathy in the black community. Black indifference to the war is partly a legacy of botched commemorations of the war’s centennial 50 years ago, experts say. With civil-rights battles raging across the South, the federal commission and its state counterparts stuck to discussing bullets, bombs, and battlefields, leaving the thorny question of “why” unanswered. “In a way, the civil-rights movement eclipsed the centennial and was seen by many people as being more relevant than observation and commemoration of military battles,” recalls James McPherson, an eminent Civil War historian at Princeton. “There was an idea that this war was about something that wasn’t really talked about.”
“It wasn’t in any abstract or theoretical sense that African Americans were fighting for freedom—they knew that if they lost, they were still slaves.”
That created a chance for two kinds of history to take hold: a slanted version propagated by Confederate apologists who blamed the war on states’ rights rather than conflict over slavery, and a second, more common version that focused excessively on military history while leaving cultural context behind. Both alienated blacks from Civil War history. Blair, the reenactor, chuckled at predominantly white preservation groups baffled at African-American disinterest in their activities. “I said, the names of your lectures are ‘Forrest: Wizard in the Saddle’ or about Robert E. Lee,” he says, referring to Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. “What African American is going to want to go to that?”
Jackson is trying to push the nation over these barriers. As a youngish black man from the urban North, even one whose father is a leading civil-rights activist, the Illinois Democrat is an unlikely Civil War buff. He became interested when he toured Southern battlefields in the late 1990s. It was a horror show. He saw dozens of schools and civic buildings named after Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis—men he describes as “the greatest traitors in our nation’s history.” In Appomattox, Virginia, site of Lee’s surrender, a veteran high-school teacher told him how she had taught generations of students that the war wasn’t about slavery, proud of her even-handed but misleading approach. And when he pressed National Park employees about the lack of context at historic sites, he was dismissed. “I was at a battlefield in Georgia, meeting the park superintendent, who had no idea I was a congressman,” Jackson recalls. “The guy got fairly indignant and said, ‘Well, if you want that changed, you got to go all the way to Congress!’ So I said OK.”
When he returned to Washington, Jackson slipped language into an appropriations bill that mandated that the National Park Service address slavery’s role as the primary cause of the war at relevant sites. NPS Chief Historian Bob Sutton says that’s led to a revolution in how the parks explain the war. But just swapping out the displays at Gettysburg only goes so far. A scant 5 percent of rangers are black, for example, and only six of the NPS’s 74 Civil War sites have black superintendents. And while the park service doesn’t collect statistics on visitor demographics, rangers say it’s not hard to tell that almost all park visitors are white—just look around most parks.
The centennial commission had a wide reach, but lack of funds and lack of organization mean that any Civil War education effort, much less one with a controversial message, will struggle to reach a wide swath of America. With Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Jackson has proposed a national Civil War sesquicentennial commission, following in the footsteps of the centennial commission, but that bill stalled in the last Congress and hasn’t made any progress in the new term, either. Some states have created commissions to commemorate the war, but they’re often only advisory and are chronically underfunded. Other states, such as Mississippi, don’t even have committees.
But states that do are trying to include African-American stories in their celebrations. Ohio’s sesquicentennial commission is emphasizing the state’s role as a central part of the Underground Railroad. Pennsylvania has made a military training camp for black soldiers a centerpiece. Ed Ayers, a Civil War historian who is president of the University of Richmond, has scheduled historical events at historically black colleges and universities in order to draw in a black audience. And Keith Hardison, director of North Carolina historic sites, says commemorations there are focusing on blacks from the Tar Heel State who fought. “It wasn’t in any abstract or theoretical sense that those African Americans were fighting for freedom—they knew that if they lost, they were still slaves,” he says. “That’s a North Carolina story in the same way as the boys who lined up and put on the gray.”
Meanwhile, the Confederate apologists—though weakened by the passage of time—remain strongly opposed to the new narrative. Although the academic consensus is virtually unanimous in naming slavery as the primary cause of the war, pockets of resistance persist. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage organization, has been aggressive in promoting its view that the war was fought not over slavery but rather over an unlawful invasion of Southern states. “I don’t think our government wants to face the truth that the war shouldn’t have happened,” says Michael Givens, SCV’s commander in chief. “If they’re just trying to appease the African-American population, it’s not going to do that.” Within the Civil War history community, Virginia’s Civil War 150 commission is widely seen as the best organized and best funded in the nation, but the state was also recently forced to pulp a fourth-grade textbook that falsely asserted—based on shoddy Internet research—that thousands of blacks fought for the South. That came just months after the state’s governor proclaimed Confederate History Month and was then forced to reverse his move. And Mississippi is embroiled in a controversy over proposed license plates honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Even against a challenging backdrop, the revisionist camp represented by Jackson and others is optimistic. Many in the current generation of Civil War buffs credit the centennial with awakening an interest in the war, so the four years of sesquicentennial are the best chance they’ll have to make a major impression. “I want people’s understanding of American history to be transformed, for this to be the culmination of changing perceptions that began with the civil-rights movement,” Ayers says. “If it’s not a profound turning point in our history, we will have failed our own time.”
Xtra Insight: Unsung Heroes of the Civil War
Xtra Insight: Civil War at 150: Are We Whitewashing Slavery?
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.