Category Archives: Perspectives on the Civil War Series

Civil War Songs & Stories — Some Video Clips

I received DVDs of our Civil War concert over the weekend. I was devastated to learn a few days after the program that, due to some technical difficulties, we lost a large chunk of the second half. There were some important scenes and beautiful solos in that half that together constituted much of the show’s emotional heft, so I’m sad I only got to see it once and don’t get to share it with anyone else. We may attempt to record some of it later (at least audio, in case the soloists want to use the recordings in their portfolios, but I doubt we’ll recapture the emotion of the full live performance).

Anyway, I attempted to break the parts of the program we did get into smaller pieces so I could share them here. The embedded clips here are from an early version of the video — my colleague in Mass Communication (on top of everything else he has already done) was able to uncompress some of the audio, so I may post updated clips later.

Things move largely in order below.

Part 1: An imagined debate among the Presidential candidates in 1860. With Dr. Scott Billingsley as Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Bruce DeHart as Stephen Douglas, Dr. Jeff Frederick as John C. Breckinridge, and Dr. Weston Cook as John Bell. The lines here come from a variety of documents, including the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and Howell Cobb and Alexander Stephens arguing for and against secession. Followed by the men of the University Chorale (conducted by Dr. Jose Rivera and accompanied by Dr. Seung-Ah Kim) singing “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”

Part 2: History students reading excerpts of letters and diary entries by soldiers and their wives, followed by the women of the University Chorale singing Ron Nelson’s arrangement of “He’s Gone Away.”

Part 3: A sequence of readings designed to present the “emancipation as military necessity” argument emerging in the summer and fall of 1862. This sequence opens with history instructor Anthony Johnson portraying Alexander Stephens giving his famous “cornerstone speech,” and then attempts to present the contraband theory, featuring Dr. Ryan Anderson as Benjamin Butler, theatre major Kayla Cox as Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Billingsley as President Lincoln. Our guest musicians, members of the Huckleberry Brothers Band, play “Darling Nelly Gray” as the choir re-enters, and they conclude with William Dawson’s “Aint’a That Good News.”

Part 4: A student brass quintet plays “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother.”

Part 5: The program’s finale. The very beginning of this piece got cut off, so it opens mid-line for soloist Fabian Griffith, who portrays Frederick Douglass in this ensemble from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown. The University Chorale joins him.

What’s missing? Well, the Huckleberry Brothers Band played a full set between parts two and three, but I didn’t want to post the video of that without their permission, so I may add it later. The brass quintet opened the second half of the program, and from there we had a number of elements that got lost. Kayla presented a monologue she wrote herself, drawing heavily in Sarah Bradford’s Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, 1869. A student soloist sang Harry Burleigh’s setting of “Steal Away.” Three of the history students from the earlier scene came back to read letters and diary entries from later in the war, followed by another student soloist, this time performing Jon Kander’s “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou.” Drs. Billingsley and Anderson returned, this time with Ryan portraying General Sherman (allowing him to play two of the most hated men in the south in one night!), to move us toward the end of the war. The choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then another student gave a fantastic solo performance — this time, Kurt Weill’s setting of “O Captain! My Captain!” From there, we concluded with the John Brown excerpts you see above.

I really do appreciate all the hard work everyone put into this program. Any images you see on the screen behind the performers were put together by our two student assistants, who also did a great job. Thanks are due as well to the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Blumenthal Foundation for the Arts, who provided funds for the costumes and guest performers.

My Last Sesquicentennial Hurrah

Deon Megan Ian
three history students participate in a scene drawn from letters between soldiers and their wives

Last night, we presented Civil War Songs and Stories: Commemorating Emancipation, a concert I organized and designed with a friend and colleague in the UNCP Music Department, Dr. Jose Rivera. This was a big production for a school our size — Jose’s choir, the University Chorale, with about 50 members, plus a student brass quintet, a guest band, a slideshow of period photographs and images, and twelve speakers drawn primarily from History Department students and faculty (although we brought in one ringer from Theatre). I’m guessing we had about 250 people in the audience.

four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860
four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860

I did enjoy watching my colleagues yell at each other. Even better, our students really stepped up and did a tremendous job. All the speakers inhabited their characters quite well — and most managed to do their lines from memory. The vocal soloists were fantastic. They sang difficult repertoire (Kurt Weill’s setting of O Captain! My Captain!, Harry Burleigh’s Steal Away, Jon Kander’s A Letter from Sullivan Ballou) with both precision and emotion. The choir was wonderful as well. And everyone was pleasant to work with — even if I probably drove them nuts at some point in the proceedings.

General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy
General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy

We closed the concert with a big chorus from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown, featuring a baritone soloist as Frederick Douglass, with text compiled from his speeches in England in 1846. It may seem strange to end with an antebellum text, but it culminates in the choir quoting the Declaration of Independence:

Douglas: “What do we ask of America? We only ask that it complete its own Revolution! That revolution which declared to all the world — We hold these truths, to be self evident …” And then everyone repeats the early lines from the Declaration, concentrating heavily on “all men are created equal.”

I thought it was a nice counterpoint to the segment from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural we had just used. In both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of unfinished business, and subsequent generations of commemorative speeches at Gettysburg have taken their cue from Lincoln as well, defining that “unfinished business” as the persistent problem of inequality in American society. Different speakers have highlighted different types of inequality, but the theme has remained consistent, and I thought it was a good one to highlight at the end of our program.

This concert was UNCP’s last sesquicentennial event. I started the Civil War series in the fall of 2010, and I certainly plan to continue it, but I don’t plan on doing anything this large or complex for quite some time. But it was a great evening, and I can’t wait to see the video.

Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom
Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom

Fort Fisher & the “Anemic” Sesquicentennial

I spent Saturday, January 16, at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, attending some of the 150th Anniversary Commemoration events. According to the NC Guard and the MPs who handled parking and crowd control at the state park and nearby Air Force recreation area, approximately 15,000 people attended over the course of two days. I know that number is easily dwarfed by the nearly 250,000 who showed up to some portion of the Gettysburg commemorations, but that battle is just a wee bit more famous. And I do think there is a difference between National and State historic sites when it comes to advertising, resources, and the likely reach of its popularity. Besides, the two parks are vastly different in size — 7,000 people or so per day on the remaining grounds of the Fort Fisher site felt pretty crowded, and was complicated enough from a logistical standpoint. There’s really only one road in and out.

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After giving my little talk, I watched the formal “opening ceremony” at the Battle Acre. VIPs were seated in front of the monument, with the rest of us milling around behind. Participants for the battle re-enactment to take place later that day lined up in formation at the back of the grounds. The governor spoke — full of praise for the military, but saying little, if anything, about the Civil War, its legacy, or what happened at Fort Fisher — and then Ed Bearss delivered the keynote address. Most of his speech was predictable and forgettable, from my perspective, although delivered with admirable energy. But toward the end of his address, he ventured to compare the day’s events and crowds with the 100th anniversary of the second battle of Fort Fisher.

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According to Bearss, the sesquicentennial far exceeded the centennial. Certainly, we are well aware that celebrations flamed out after the Gettysburg Centennial, for a number of reasons, and Sesquicentennial organizations have proclaimed their intentions all along to finish stronger than their commemorative predecessors. So I’m not surprised to learn that the Fort Fisher commemorations were more robust this time around. Bearss proposed a potentially controversial reason, though: he said that the Sesquicentennial outlasted the Centennial because it was directed by the states rather than a national commission, and thus better reflected the hearts and will of the people.

Last spring, public historians and bloggers (see Kevin Levin, Craig Swain, etc.) vigorously denied Gary Gallagher’s assertion that the sesquicentennial had been “anemic” compared to the centennial. Gallagher specifically cited the lack of a national commission as one of the factors limiting sesquicentennial events — but Bearss’s opposing view is intriguing. I’ve been very impressed with the North Carolina sesquicentennial commission’s events and programs, especially their ability to bring together groups that reflect the current state of North Carolina. The sesquicentennial events I’ve attended have generally reflected greater racial diversity than we often see at Civil War commemorations, although that diversity wasn’t particularly on display at Fort Fisher. But the turnout for the program, and the range of activities available for the participants, demonstrated substantial continuing interest in sesquicentennial commemorations among the population and leaders of North Carolina, for which I’m grateful.

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