Telling the story of the Civil War: The Joseph’s Coat* approach

Posted on August 10, 2012 by


Over at Emerging Civil War, Kathleen Logothetis posted something today (Let’s Talk Openly About Slavery: Interpretation at Monticello) that caught my attention and made me think a little more about what might be considered a challenge in telling the story of the Civil War. Not that it’s difficult to weave together the topic of slavery with the Civil War… that’s a no-brainer. Instead, well… I’ll get to that in a bit…

She points out the Civil War is not central in the interpretation of Monticello, and, of course, she’s right (although there are some interesting sidebar stories relating to the site during the war). Perhaps more importantly, what this sort of post (in a Civil War blog) does, is make us think further. It forces some to think outside levels of familiarity. I had hardly splashed into the first sentence before my mind turned to something similar… how can we talk openly about slavery in interpreting the Civil War? Perhaps that’s too broad if we consider what Kathleen is talking about. Let’s focus instead on 1) the site… Monticello… and how it is interpreted. My comment about this was…

Monticello, as a relatively small environment/setting, provides the optimal opportunity to talk about both at the same time… or, if the visitor chooses, allows him/her to take a particular interpretive “path” that may only brush up against other paths (a more subtle overlap).

So, in what ways can we find similar environments in discussing the Civil War? To be sure, they are there, but… how can some interpretive platforms simply not mention slavery… or the role of slaves and free blacks? How would you weave-in, for example, the story of slaves and free blacks into the discussion/interpretation of a battle in which there were no USCTs present? Is there relevance in every situation? Granted, you can discuss larger issues and how those on the battlefield played into those issues, but… really, there are interpretive platforms that work better than others. Thinking in terms of upcoming Sesqui events, I can’t see how, for example, the inclusion might be relevant to the fight at Deep Cut, at Manassas.

Perhaps I should narrow the scope further.

Where can we find similar environments (thinking, again, with the comparative environment of Monticello) in which discussion of slavery has been absent, but actually had a place in the discussion?

Southern Unionism is one of those. It lends itself easily to diversity… not just in race, but in varying sentiments, social relations, etc.,… and I think that’s one of the great things that draws me to it. In my comment, I referred to a “Joseph’s coat” approach* to interpretation, and Southern Unionism seems to wear the coat quite well. Some would prefer to restrict the story to relating one aspect… that being Southerners (the preferred title, as silly as I find it,  to some might be scalawags) who stood in opposition to the Confederacy. But that doesn’t capture the larger picture of who they were. They were white and black/African-American (and more, actually, when we consider native Americans).

Even within that narrow scope, there were subgroups. Taking African-Americans, for example… and considering free blacks and slaves… and some who donned blue uniforms. Although, I have to say, I think that discussion is rather dominated by men, with much less left for us to effectively tap into the story of African-American women as Southern Unionists.  Among whites, we have those who were slaveholders and those who were abolitionists. We even have divisions within families, sons with opinions that stood in contrast to that of their fathers.

These are just a few examples within the study of Southern Unionism, but now I’m wondering… when dealing with the Civil War in interpretation at historic sites, or reading the stories in books or other forms of media, where can the “Joseph’s Coat” approach be considered where it has long been…and perhaps, remains… absent? Are we at a point where the discussion of African-Americans, for example, has been efficiently woven into other stories, or do we have further to go?

* Keep in mind, I’m using a bit of artistic license in using the phrase “Joseph’s Coat”. It’s more a metaphorical reference to diversity in approaches to interpretation (inclusive of many colors) than it is in adhering to the more commonly understood Biblical reference. That said, however, there is a degree of irony which might lend itself to further discussion considering how, because of jealousy over Joseph’s coat, his brothers ended up selling Joseph into slavery… and, later, when he confronts his brothers in Egypt, how Joseph recognized them, but how they failed to recognize him. In this sense, I suppose, it comes full circle regarding the interpretation of the story of African-Americans in relation to the micro-history of the Civil War.