What Got me Started

Having lived in Virginia for about 51 of my 76 years, I decided to audit a course in Virginia history taught by Professor Warren Hofstra at Shenandoah University nearly eight years ago. I was surprised when Warren emphasized racism, a subject I never thought much about. I should have, because for more than two decades I served as a deacon at a Catholic parish in Arlington County founded by black Catholics in 1946 — they were sick and tired of being forced to sit in the choir loft or the back of the church. Perhaps my twenty years’ service in the Army also blinded me to reality – the services finally became fully integrated during the war in Vietnam in the mid-1960 and 1970s, when I went on active duty. Interestingly, Harry Truman issued an executive order directing their integration in 1948  — the services were obviously reluctant to change; certainly, most of the leadership was. That is a perfect illustration of the power racism had on this country. It still has!

Sheila and I moved out to the Shenandoah Valley in 2009 because I am a Civil War buff. I volunteered at Belle Grove Plantation, the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, and the National Park Service contact station at Cedar Creek Battlefield Partnership Park, all at Middletown, about twelve miles south of Winchester. I soon found out that eight major battles took place in a thirty-mile radius from Winchester — the First, Second and Third Battles of Winchester and two battles at Kernstown, a Winchester suburb. Stonewall Jackson suffered his only defeat at the first battle of Kernstown. There were also major battles at Fishers Hill, Toms Brook, a huge cavalry battle involving two divisions on both sides, and finally the decisive battle at Cedar Creek. This battle sealed the fate of the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley, denying the South of one of their last breadbaskets.

I began to realize that the men who fought in these battles fought continuous campaigns. The same soldiers who fought at Chancellorsville near Fredericksburg in May 1863 fought at Gettysburg during the first three days of July, less than two months later. As I continued to gain knowledge, I realized that what happened after the shooting stopped at Appomattox was far more important than individual battles, or even the course of the entire Civil War.

20th Maine on Round Top

When I set out to read a book or books about the war’s aftermath, I discovered that there was no one book that answered that question — so I set out to write one myself. Collective Amnesia is a synthesis of nearly 100 books and innumerable magazine and website articles. But horror of horrors — after I published the book, I discovered that African Americans arrived with the Spanish in 1526, nearly a century before the first permanent Anglo Saxon settlement at Jamestown. So I wrote African Americans in American History, 1526 – Present, and a book for children by the same name. Of course, that’s not the only reason; you will find a lot more depth and shame in the adult history. I’m looking for a publisher for both.

What I discovered as I researched both new books nearly blew me away. This is not the history any of us learned growing up, nor is it a history we can be proud of. It’s no wonder we do our best to forget it. But this we must not do, because, in a very real sense, many of the issues the Civil War was fought over continue to be disputed today. At issue: whether our Constitution’s assertion that “all are created equal” is real, or whether we are just hypocrites. One has to wonder in what sense we are a “Christian” country as well. Of course, not all were guilty of these heinous acts, but we as a country tolerated them and covered them up, much the same as Nazi Germany…

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Gene Betit

7 Comments

  1. Bill Austin on March 14, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks Gene for keeping the African American experience front and center. I sometimes wonder if we’ll see significant improvement in equality during my lifetime. Bias and denial of equal rights and justice are seen every day here in North Carolina. Cherie and I have now adopted the Equal Justice Initiative as one of our favorite charities. If you’re not familiar…look them up. Wonderful programming, great cause, museum and monument in Montgomery. AL. We visited just prior to the pandemic last year. Take care and keep charging!!!

  2. Paula Becker on March 15, 2021 at 7:34 am

    History is supposedly written by the winners. In our country, history has continued to be erased while the flag of the defeated proudly flies. My own shame is most intense when I read of my ancestor, Lewis C. Robards, a slave trader in Kentucky specialized in “fancy girls” selling for high prices to their white masters. We have no shame.

    • Gene Betit on March 15, 2021 at 9:40 am

      Knowing all we should know, it’s also difficult to claim that we are a “Christian” nation. Christ must continually weep at our hypocrisy!!!

  3. Pat Young on March 15, 2021 at 8:38 am

    Good post Gene.

  4. Gene Betit on March 15, 2021 at 9:37 am

    Great to hear from you Bill! Yes, we deeply admire what Bryan Stevenson and his group has accomplished and diverted to Montgomery to see both museums two years ago on our way back from Sarasota, our February escape from the ice, snow, and cold.

    You don’t know any publishers or agents, do you?

    The local NAACP group is working to get Thomas Laws proper recognition…

  5. Tom Dickinson on March 15, 2021 at 5:52 pm

    Hi Gene: Excellent post…the only negative about it is that it ended too soon! I was hoping for more…you got me hooked, I was in lockstep with you every word. I will have to buy your 2 books. Wish you were still here to help us save a very important Civil War site in Arlington. For the last year I’ve been working almost full time (no pay of course) to save the historic Febrey-Lothrop-Rouse estate at 6407 Wilson Blvd on Upton’s Hill, where Fort Ramsay was located, and the site where over 25,000 Union troops were encamped, trained, drilled, and were treated for wounds at Manassas 1 & 2. We’ve been able to document the presence of at least 31 different Regiments from the Regimental histories written after the war. We know a hospital was on site. We know both Presidents McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes were there as Union soldiers. We have several contemporaneous letters and sketches from the site written/drawn by soldiers. We have a long, detailed article written by a New York Times correspondent about extensive graffiti in the main house built (no doubt by enslaved African-Americans) in 1855. We know that over the decades, a treasure trove of artifacts have been found on the 9.5 acre site.
    Despite all of that, the Arlington County Board allowed a demolition permit and a land disturbance permit to be issued on 5 March, even though my application for a Local Historic District designation, unanimously approved by the Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board, is still pending before the Board for a final vote on 17 April, by which time the entire property will be demolished and destroyed!!! We are still searching for some documentation/proof of presence of U.S. Colored Troops on the site…if you can help us with that Gene, it would be another arrow in the quiver. But I expect bulldozers sometime this week, barring an unforeseen miracle.
    Thanks again for your own research and writing, Gene! Good on you!

    • Gene Betit on June 1, 2021 at 6:19 am

      I regret that I have not accessed my blog for the past couple months — McFarland indicated some interest in a more focused book, so I’ve written one on African Americans in America’s Wars, which I call Forbidden, Forgotten, Unforgettable.

      That is depressing news. I do know that the 1st USCI were trained on Theodore Roosevelt Island (that was not its name then), so it is very possible.

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