Confederate Culture Wars: Steward Henderson

Recent discussions about the Confederate flags and the ending of the Civil War Sesquicentennial have raised questions about Americans’ overall knowledge of the Civil War. This problem has to be solved by our educational system, which no longer wants to discuss our country’s actual military history in the wars that we have fought—most importantly, in my opinion, the Civil War.

So we—the Civil War historians, interpreters, and living historians—have to educate the people that we interact with in appropriate forums, discussions, and events.

Over the past four years, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I have discussed the Civil War with many Americans, as well as with people from all across the world. I have given presentations to several groups and many school children and have given many explanations and lectures about the battles, the civilians, slavery, politics, and the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The most important theme of many of the conversations that I have had, is the lack of knowledge about Civil War. A major example of this lack of knowledge is reflected in one of the most frequently asked questions to my regiment: Are we Union or Confederate soldiers? We wear blue uniforms with “U.S.” on our buckles and carry an American regimental flag. (I will write a blog about the few black Confederate soldiers at a future date.)

Older Americans may have learned limited Civil War history in school, but most of our citizens are no longer learning it. It is time that our education system teaches our students about the Civil War instead of a politically expedient version of this history. The knowledge of that history can lead to important conversations about how we continue to react to what happened during and since the Civil War.

In my discussions with visitors to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and with friends, Civil War living historians, and those who know my involvement in the Civil War, many are now asking, in the midst of all the recent controversy, what Civil War information is true and what is not true. Some even question whether people will continue to come to Civil War battlefields or whether they will close. Some question if they are allowed to bring Confederate flags on the battlefields. Most ask me about the actual history of the War.

Confederate flags should be able to be displayed in Civil War-themed museums, games, toys, puzzles, and on battlefields during living history events and reenactments. They are an important part of our Civil War history and have to remain if we are to be factual about our history.

The battle flag, however, was made prominent again, to rebel against the civil rights period in the 1950’s and 60’s. I lived through that time period, so I know why this flag is the center of the current controversy. I feel that if Southerners want to celebrate their heritage, then they should use the first national Confederate flag, the actual “Stars and Bars.” It does not stand out as a symbol against the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

However, Southerners should also realize what the Confederacy actually stood for: the states’ right to keep slavery. The rest of us should also realize that slavery was the economic system of the South during the time of the Civil War, and its estimated value to the South was approximately three billion dollars.

At the time of the Civil War, most Northerners could care less about slavery, and they wanted blacks to stay in the South. The major discussion about slavery was its expansion—the North wanted to keep the lands open for free white men to settle and did not want to compete against slave labor.

Do not believe that the North fought for freedom of the slaves. The purpose of the war—until the Emancipation Proclamation—was to save the Union. This country was a democracy in the age of monarchies, and Unionists wanted to prove that people could govern themselves. President Abraham Lincoln would save the country, whether or not he freed the slaves or not.

Throughout our history, we must finally come to realize that we have never lived up to our motto “All people are created equal” or that we are the “Land of the Free.” We may be the closest country to those ideals, but we have not reached that goal. That is a fact that we must all live with, and we must all try to make this a reality today.

We cannot turn our back on this history, but we must learn from our past and have constructive dialog about what actually happened. That means that we discuss the battles, the civilians, the politics, and the culture of the time period—without making trying to be “politically correct” by today’s standards.

We—the Civil War historians, interpreters, and the living historians—should do our best to educate our visitors and friends about this history. We can tell the story by using the documents, letters, books, and diaries of the time period. We can have honest, objective conversations about the events and myths of that time.

I believe that our battlefields and museums will be in existence for as long as this country is in existence. We have allocated large sums of money to save our battlefields, and we still have many visitors—both American and foreigners. We still bring in a significant number of tourists and their monies to the areas that have our battlefields. So, to those who do not think that we will be around in a couple of years, I beg to differ with you.

However, if we do not know our history, we may be doomed to repeat it. Just think of Baltimore this year. It reminded me of the riots in the 60’s. The questions about the Confederate battle flag were also a problem in the 1960’s. Thus, in essence, we are repeating our past—and the reason is, we cannot have an intelligent dialogue about the history of our United States of America and how we must move forward!

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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5 Responses to Confederate Culture Wars: Steward Henderson

  1. Meg Thompson says:

    As someone who has been in the public school classroom for over 30 years, I can completely agree with you. The professional history community did its heroic best to cope with No Child Left behind, but when the administration basically orders its faculty to only teach Reading and Math, that was the death knell for History and Science, and for Writing Across the Curriculum. It was so awful for me that I left 5th grade and went to Middle School to teach Mathematics.

    Now we have a whole crop of young teachers caught between NCLB and Common Core, who don’t know which way to jump. My hint? Common Core all the way–check out GilderLehrman for History!

  2. ronzzo1 says:

    Well said Steward.

  3. Thank you for your comments.

  4. Joseph D. LaFleur, III says:

    This is exactly the article that needed to be published by exactly this gentleman. Sadly, the places it needs to be shared most are exactly the ones that will reject it wholesale and/or create nasty discussions that get deleted or never published in most forums… We’ll keep trying though

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