JP: I’d first like to get your assessment on how the Sesquicentennial commemoration is coming along so far? Are there any areas of improvement that you think should be emphasized more over the next few years?
Considerations of military campaigns and the societal impact of those battles is another area that is remarkably different than in years past. While there certainly are traditional reenactments taking place—the inclusion of United States Colored Troops, discussions about self-emancipators (Contrabands) and the home front, along with the course of battle are very encouraging.
In the closing years of the commemorations, a shift to discussions of legacies would be wonderful—however I do not expect that to be a part of national conversations. Five years is a long time to commemorate anything and attention spans rarely stay fixed on an idea or concept as diffuse as “legacies of war.” But one can always hope! Perhaps the most disappointing element of the Sesquicentennial is that there was no national commission formed—instead the Smithsonian Institute’s museums have served as the conduit for programs and exhibitions focused on the war.JP: In 1994 you were involved in a very controversial re-creation of a slave auction while working at Colonial Williamsburg. Do you think that the public discourse over race and slavery had changed in the past 18 years? Do you see any room for similar events during the Sesquicentennial?
CC: I continue to be fascinated that there is still interest in the Estate Sale/Slave Auction program. I think the larger question is why. I suppose the answer lies in the fact that improvements with interpretation of slavery at the nation’s museums and historic sites has occurred, however, there are still far too many organizations that continue to struggle with how best to address the subject. I would argue that at the root of this interpretive challenge is the fact that we as a nation have not fully addressed very complex racial issues. In fact we tend to avoid them or use diversionary tactics, often refusing to acknowledge that the issues exist at all.Over the past eighteen years, I have attended and presented at a number of workshops and symposia on this subject and invariably the conversion is the same. Who is doing “good” slavery interpretation? Can we replicate it? What resources do we have to introduce it? Are those resources enough? Will the public accept it? How do we prepare our docents and staff? How do we avoid controversy? The answer to each of these is greatly dependent upon the level of risk tolerance or aversion within the institution.
What I have observed thus far during the Sesquicentennial (which admittedly is limited to the work of various National Park Service sites and mid Atlantic organizations) has been a series of lectures or small exhibitions related to slavery at a particular location. There has been very little in terms of the work of the black abolitionists and their allies to press the former Republican Party to take an emancipation platform and their ongoing efforts to help self-emancipators in the chaos of war. But the last three years of the commemoration are full of opportunities for interpretation at various sites, starting with the official Emancipation Proclamation and the formation of the USCTs.JP: What in particular draws you to the study of history?
CC: I have always loved history, particularly social history. I have been fascinated by the lesser known stories, the little nuggets of personal experience that can illustrate larger truths. But I have never been interested in being an academic historian. Instead I have chosen to be in public history which involves engaging historians on critical ideas while simultaneously helping the public explore the complexity of the historical narrative—regardless of era. Being party to those moments of illumination that visitors experience are very gratifying, because I clearly understand that what we do as public historians is help our visitors navigate history (the facts), heritage (beliefs and traditions) and memory (family connections) to come to a deeper level of engagement with the past.
JP: Do you have a favorite Civil War book?
CC: Not really—only because each new book that I read, opens a new area of consideration. I do have a few favorites for widely different reasons. Among the favorites are : The Fiery Trial (Eric Foner); Mary Chestnut’s Civil War (ed. C. Vann Woodward); Bloody Crimes (James Swanson); Richmond Burning and Cry Havoc (Nelson Langford); The Negro in the Civil War (Benjamin Quarles) and Battle Cry of Freedom (James McPherson). There are so many others that I have read and enjoyed—but again, each of these is compelling history and have formed a structure that informs other study.JP: What can visitors to the American Civil War Center expect to see as the Sesquicentennial continues?
CC: We are doing considerable preservation work at Historic Tredegar to ensure that the legacy of this important industrial site is here for generations. In addition, we are building new facilities and exhibits that will enable us to showcase more elements of the history of the war through exhibits and programs.[NOTE: I should also mention that in a few short days Christy’s crew at Tredegar will be staging "American Séance," their original theatrical production that will run Oct. 29 - Nov. 2. Visit http://www.tredegar.org/seance.aspx for details and to buy tickets. Performances will be at 7 and 8 p.m. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students.]
Many thanks to Christy for her time and thoughts!