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.
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…