Civil War Books, Bookstores, and Other Ramblings

A few of my fellow Civil War bloggers have commented on the poor offerings of Civil War titles at their local stores.  Most of us browse either our local Barnes and Noble or Borders and have noticed a difference in the quality of the overall selection.  Since I worked for Borders from 1994 to 1998 I can comment on the difference.  I worked at the Borders in Rockville, Maryland, which as many of you who live in that area know is one of the larger stores in the chain.  I was in charge of the magazine section, but given my growing interest in the Civil War at the time was also responsible for the Civil War section.  Those of you who have commented on the selection between these two competitors have rightfully pointed out that Borders seems to offer more.  At least when I worked for the company I had the option of ordering any title that I thought would enrich the section.  I took full advantage of this opportunity.

As I worked at the Rockville store before the company went "corporate" the place had a sincere intellectual feel about it. I worked with some very thoughtful people who were passionate about reading and engaging customers.  I organized my own Civil War reading group and we welcomed a number of local Civil War historians to join us to discuss their own recently released books.  In 1997 I organized a day long event which included historians such as William Matter, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, and Craig Symonds.  Brian Pohanka dropped by at the end of the day in full uniform to wrap up the event.  He was a pleasure to meet.  Participants presented formal presentations about their books and stayed to talk to customers and sign books.  Needless to say it was a great day.

There is no doubt that the selection of Civil War titles has diminished in the major chain stores.  There is no conspiracy however; it is a simple question of how best to utilize limited space.  If you want large selections of books than I suggest you find religion or engage in a little self-reflection to uncover your short-comings and any other psychological malfunction that could be helped by browsing the Self-Help section.  I suspect that many people are buying on-line where there are some excellent discounts available.  I’ve recently moved in this direction, but I still enjoy browsing a well-stocked store.  Amazon typically offers up to a 36% discount on newly-released titles.  Small press titles are probably suffering more than those published by the university presses, and the reason is that the latter will be bought by both colleges and university libraries.  Perhaps that is why they can get away with charging higher prices as they don’t need to print as many.  As I’ve said before, most Civil War enthusiasts don’t read books.  And most of the people who attend Civil War Roundtable meetings are senior citizens which suggests that unless new blood is discovered the Civil War section will be even more difficult to find in your local store. 

Finally, I wanted to say something about the recent rally of the Ku Klux Klan in Sharpsburg this past weekend.  The story is quite popular over at Google News with right around 200 references.  Of course this organization has the right to exercise their First Amendment privileges and at the same time we should not tolerate the kind of racist nonsense that they spew.  That said, I was struck by the number of people who when asked why they decided to protest the Klan’s presence on the battlefield responded by trying to distance the men who fought the Civil War from any racial considerations.  In the end I wonder who does more damage to our understanding of the past.  Is it the Klan who claim to be the "ghosts of our Confederate brothers" or is it those of us who continue to push a racially sanitized view of the Civil War?  Just a thought. 

4 thoughts on “Civil War Books, Bookstores, and Other Ramblings

  1. Anonymous

    The Klan claims to be honoring the “ghosts of Confederate brothers,” yet they made speeches targeting immigrants, minorities, and others. Large numbers of immigrants served in the Confederate armies, as well as religious minority groups such as Jews and Catholics. The irony here, of course, is that usually these facts are trotted out as a justification for erasing slavery from the history of the war, because certainly a poor immigrant mechanic wouldn’t fight to preserve slavery. Yet in this instance, the Klan is using slavery to erase these other minorities from the history of the war.

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  2. Cash

    Kevin,

    Out here in Utah the Barnes & Noble stores have mighty poor history sections whereas the Borders history sections are much better.

    Regarding the KKK at Antietam, Allen Trelease, in his book, _White Terror,_ documents how the KKK in Reconstruction, which had several former confederate soldiers in its membership, would intimidate blacks by claiming to be the ghosts of dead confederate soldiers.

    Regards,
    Cash

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  3. Anonymous

    The original KKK claimed to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers and focused on intimidating African-Americans. The Klan of today is not the Klan of Reconstruction, but it has shifted rhetorically and ideologically. The presence at the event of individuals wearing swastikas points to the shift from anti-black to a movement focused more narrowly on a nativist/Protestant/white supremacist movement. Today’s Klan, by making the claims that they did at Antietam, are in effect saying that their agenda is the same as the original Klan (the justification for them gathering at Antietam, because there is a connection to the Civil War dead there). They are recasting the Confederate States as an almost proto-Nazi movement. Today’s Klan really has no connection at all to the original Klan besides sharing certain aspects of its pageantry. Thus, the connection between the Klan today and Antietam is tenuous, at best. Notice that “heritage” groups such as the CSA have distanced themselves from this sort of thing, becuase they want to deny that slavery played any part in the war. The Klan at Antietam is the opposite end of this polarity, since they are claiming that the Confederacy’s mission was to establish a white/nativist/protestant republic (which it certainly was not).

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  4. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for writing in. I am well aware of the history of the Klan and the salient differences between the rise of the first wave and the re-emergence in the 1920′s. I don’t want to make too much of this apart from the fact that both the Klan and the overwhelming number of Civil War enthusiasts hold a distorted view of the war based on their preferred narrative. One side has warped the historical claims of white supremacy that were closely tied to the birth of the Confederacy into a more general nativist claim, while the latter ignores or seriously downplays the importance of race in the study of the war.

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