I was privileged to be able to attend events here in Knoxville this last weekend to celebrate the Sesquicentennial (150 years) of the ending of the Civil War. The “Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee” events were all over the city to help people remember the Civil War’s significance in our history and how we still feel the impact of it today. We think of the “glory” of the battles, the generals, the loss of family members, but we don’t spend as much time on what followed to address the issues that started the war. “Reconstruction” has become a distasteful term and it was glossed over in my history books (or at least that is how I remember it) because of its failures and how difficult it was to implement.
I attended 3 events that all attempted to continue the discussion about Reconstruction. Perhaps if we keep looking at it, we can truly accomplish the promised changes it was supposed to bring.
Dr. Caroline E. Janney gave Thursday’s opening night’s lecture based on her book “Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.” Her speech discussed three basic themes: 1) how Unionists and Confederates saw “Reconciliation”…it was not as friendly as it is depicted 2) the issue of slavery and how both sides saw it post war 3) the role of women in Civil War societies and how different it was in the south vs. the north (surprise…bigger role for women in the south.)
Friday was the official commemoration with local political officials, representatives of the Sesquicentennial Commission and the state historian. Following that was a panel discussion of historians on “Reconstruction Tennessee.” They covered the successes and failures of reconstruction and why. The successes were the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th amendment which makes all people born in America citizens, and the 15th Amendment giving all men the right to vote. Sadly the successes were overshadowed by racism, violence and the negative reputation of the “Northern Carpetbaggers.” The historians of the William Dunning School perpetuated the ugly image of Reconstruction, as did popular culture through such films as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” We see “Reconstruction” continued with legal battles against segregation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and how we will deal with racism today.
My final and favorite event was the Color Guard demonstration of the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and the presentation of their transcribed military records to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. This was momentous because the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery soldiers, who had served in Knoxville during the Civil War (and many settled here after the war), were not invited to the 1890 and 1895 Blue & Grey Reunions in Knoxville. They had served their country with distinction and then were not allowed to attend the all white events to share in the camaraderie and remembrance.
The presentation was followed by a lecture by Dr. Frank Smith, Executive Director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C.. Dr. Smith reminded the audience that there were over 200,000 black men that served as soldiers in the Civil War. He told some wonderful stories about individuals who had escaped slavery in order to serve, including Michelle Obama’s ancestor. Descendants of soldiers come into the museum seeking to know more about their ancestors and some even bring their own original documents. (Video) The Museum is one of the sponsors of the “Grand Review Victory Parade” on May 17th in Washington, D.C., where they are expecting that over 10,000 reenactors will march. It’s important that Regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) participate, as they weren’t allowed to be there at the 1865 Grand Review celebrating the end of Civil War. It’s time to see them march for their ancestors and be honored for their contribution.
Note: If you would like to know more about the USCT in the Civil War there is a lecture by Hari Jones on the Civil War Trust website.
Also, Tennessee is not forgetting Reconstruction either – Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation has published a driving tour brochure with over 100 locations in Tennessee that played a role in Reconstruction. History is alive and well…it gives you hope!