Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Co. Aytch Recap

As Lee's last post noted, the 145th Anniversary of the battle of Chickamauga was celebrated this weekend. And it was celebrated in two distinct ways, on and off the Military Park. At the NPS site, all of your intrepid bloggers were employed in presenting a bang-up weekend of interpretive programming that our increased visitor traffic enjoyed. Down the road, however, the "big show" reenactment took a nosedive for the worse when nationally known neo-Confederate and advocate of the myth of Black Confederate soldiers, H.K. Edgerton took top billing in the "education" portion of the event. It was beyond a sham. Out of curiosity, I stopped in on one of H.K's sermons (for really I don't want to call them lectures or talks... scholars give those), and was unsurprisingly disgusted before a full five minutes were up. The contrast between the scholarly and professional character of the NPS events and the circus-like atmosphere of the reenactment was even apparent to many park visitors who we found were leaving to come be educated with the NPS. It truly was a fantastic weekend.

For my part, as Lee has also said, I put together a little living history event. I've still got many lessons to unpack from this one: which I think means it was a success. But here is a brief AAR. We started out intending to go far beyond the boundaries of living history at a Park that has had one of the strongest traditions within the NPS Civil War community. We sought to recreate the famous Co. Aytch in age, physical condition, "look," and attitude. And, though our numbers may have been small, we succeeded in all of these these regards. The small numbers, though, were an extreme benefit for us, as we were able to bring our audience up close to see exactly what a platoon of that famous company looked like. What it looked like in its entirety:

Essentially, we argued that if we are to tell the full story of Company H, 1st Tennessee Vol. Infantry then we must look beyond Sam Watkins' famous book. Though it is a fine starting point, it is and must be understood as a product of a particular race, class, and worldview unique to the 1880s. Drawing from other scattered writings by and about the 1st, we claimed that discussing the soldiers who volunteered and about whom Sam wrote was only telling a fraction of the story. Underlying every story about every character in Co. Aytch are the stories that Sam consciously excluded, hoping they would become lost. What about the men who didn't volunteer? We know that of the more than 1,000 men in the 1st Tenn. there were at least 50 slaves who accompanied them into the field. Of the 50, we know the names of just 3, one of whom, Sanker, belonged to Sam himself. Where did their narrative go? Why are they not in Co. Aytch? We made the contested claim that Sanker's, Wash Webster's, and Uncle Ike's stories deserve equal footing with those of Tennessee Thompson, Billy Webster, and Alf Horsley.

I can truthfully say that the most stunning part of the event -- for me at least -- was Emmanuel Dabney's presence in the role of my body servant. It was a presence that has not been seen on that field since 1863. That simple presence in the -- or more properly outside of the -- ranks of Co. Aytch was the first step to re-finding these individuals who were fully participant in the events that made up Watkins' narrative but that would be lost to time if we rely on Watkins' postwar memory. Reflecting on the programs we did this weekend with some other long-time Chick-Chatt'ers we agreed that this was the first time that an African American voice had been heard on that battlefield, certainly all the more important that it was one from the Confederate side, too. With the "big show" down the road playing host to H.K. Edgerton's sketchy (at best) claims, it was a high note for scholarship in the parks. The contrast couldn't have been greater, and that is exactly what we need our National Parks to provide.

Aside from the many lessons, fine programs, and hilarious times we had this weekend, there will be two related moments which will stick with me forever. Both involved reinforcing -- to me and hopefully to the audience to whom we were speaking at the time -- the basic inhumanity of slavery. One, as I was delivering a tactical talk and it came time to drop knapsacks I unslung mine and let it fall to the ground. Before I could finish my sentence and place it in the stack with the platoon's, Emmanuel had walked up -- eyes down and hands folded -- and moved it before I could say a word. I instantly knew that I had an opportunity to demonstrate the institution's cruelty here, and so I did not acknowledge his act, did not thank him for it, did not make eye contact, did not stop my talk. My own cruelty -- even to make a teaching point to the audience -- made me shudder inside. In another talk, as I paced up and down in front of the audience I took off my kid gloves and held them behind me for Emmanuel to take. Again without looking back, without saying a word, without acknowledging him in the least, I demanded his service and his loyalty. I denied him the choice of taking my gloves or not; I required that he did. And as I felt those gloves leave my hand, and as I continued my talk without missing a beat, I was sickened.

The point is not that Emmanuel was more than willing to do these things during our programs; the point is not that we dispensed with our master-slave roles once the crowds left. The point is that we got to the essence of living history this weekend. We demonstrated for the public the horrifying nature of that master-slave relationship that the battlefield had not seen since 1863. But this time we were not fighting to maintain it. We were fighting to educate a public that often does not -- can not -- grasp the basic dehumanization that that relationship forced. This time we were fighting to give these invisible characters their shot at making history at Chickamauga.

The question now is, how do we make this an every day experience for visitors at our National Park Service sites? How can we make these lessons not for special events, but for each and every visitor who walks through our doors?

Update: 2 things.
Link to my Co. Aytch research blog
Link to Authentic-Campaigner thread to see other participants' reactions.


Jubilo said...

Dear Sir ,
It seems most visitors are interested in the battle or military history not slavery or your agenda. I find the portrayal of master and body servant superb but the venue seems incorrect. There was a body servant at the 145th event as well and it was not the agenda-happy Etherton . It was a young African-American over laden with twenty canteens fetching water. How odd that an event in the South such as the 145th has only two African-Americans present .
cordially ,
David Corbett

Christopher Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Young said...

that most visitors are interested in the battle or military history, just try working there for a summer and see if your opinion doesn't change. But, for argument sake, let's say that the majority of visitors over the weekend of the 145th were there to learn about the battle. This specific demonstration was about the lives of the soldiers in Co. H of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, of which slavery was interwoven into that fabric!!!Believe me, I know how much research went into this project! No matter how far individuals try to run from the reality that slavery was the issue driving the war it will always be cold fact. Although we do not know the specific numbers of slaves accompanying their masters on the battlefield, I believe we would be very surprised at those numbers (The 1st Tenn. having approximately 50 alone). I am sorry, but I believe that your first sentence is a gross miscalculation of the message we were trying to get across to visitors. SLAVERY was real and was very much a part of the Battle of Chickamauga!!! It is important for us to recognize their sacrifices and hardships as much as their white masters fighting to keep them in bondage. (oh, and can someone get me back on as an administrator, I accidentally deleted myself playing around with this blog)

BorderRuffian said...

I would say your interpretation to be as inaccurate as you claim of Edgerton.

You forget the South was a very genteel society (still is).

A personal servant would be treated far different than you describe.

Patrick Lewis said...

You say that most visitors are interested in military history rather than our "agenda". But I remind you, that placing these battles in their proper context is the National Park Service's "agenda". I would admit that in fact, you may be correct, most visitors may be interested in simply the battle. But that just isn't enough. For them to truly understand the war, they need more than the battle. That means 1) bringing these issues to the visitor who has only heretofore thought of the military aspects of the war and 2) bringing in new visitors who have been turned off by the NPS's traditional interpretation of these battlefields (specifically women and non-whites). These motives framed our programming this weekend. I do agree with your assesment of how odd and conspicuous the absence of African Americans is in the telling of our history, but would suggest that the same fact makes point 2 all the more imperative.

Gentility or non-gentility is not the issue here. You miss the point. Slavery's cruelty laid not in a subjective measure of brutality, but in the basic denial of humanity that demanding unrewarded service and fealty implies. No matter how benevolent the master, he still dehumanizes and degrades a slave by denying them the right of choice.

Lee White said...

to add a little to this, motivation, ie why they are fighting bears out in important aspects on the battlefield, how hard soldiers are going to fight. You can go look at the census and see what would then play out on the battlefield. So why were the men of the 65th GA kept out of action despite being a fresh and large regt? Choices in which brigades would lead attacks, etc. All go back to the motivation, and what they were fighting for.


Lee White said...

In regards to David's comment about the "body servant" at the battle reenactment, it has been learned that the young man is actually a "black confederate" who was actually serving in the ranks, or so says the post on The Civil War Reenactors Forum.

Patrick Lewis said...

Really, Lee. Now that adds a whole 'nother dimension to the thing. I think our readership need not be informed -- for indeed they already should be -- of the huge differences between the two impressions. Or is that flaimbait? Or do I care?

Bottom line: Kevin Levin's blog is assumed reading for all of my posts. Like it or not.

Lee White said...

Actually more than just that, he is a member of the Palmetto Battalion's color guard.


Unknown said...

If this is Emmanuel Dabney of Virginia, I remember him from living history events at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg when I was historian there. He was at several of our events in the late 90s, and people were surprised to see a "black Confederate" participating.

Anonymous said...

Was Watkin's servant a paid servant or a slave? What do you know of Sanker? Just curious as I have no references to access.

Patrick Lewis said...

Anon, We're unsure due to the brief mention that Watkins gives him. "Sanker, my negro servant" is all we're given to work with. Considering, however, the Watkins family slaveholdings it is overwhelmingly likely Sanker was enslaved.