Are You A Civil War Buff?

Over at Civil War Power Tour blogger Joshua Blair provides a nice outline of the recent debate over the distinction between professional and amateur historians.  He identifies himself as a Civil War buff but is uncomfortable with the label: "I am considered your regular, old Civil War buff.  Here we go again with the labels.  A label, I might add, that I scoff at.  It sounds so mid-nineteenth century beefcake to me."  I read this and was reminded of an earlier post on "Civil War buffs." This was originally posted in December 2005

As I was putting the finishing touches on my AHA paper a few weeks ago I reread parts of Stephen Cushman’s book, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle. The book is about the Battle of the Wilderness and was published in 1999. I’m sure you Civil War bibliophiles out there are probably wondering how you could have missed a recent examination of this battle. Well, don’t worry; this is not your typical Civil War battle history. In fact, it’s not a battle study at all, but a reflection on the way the event has been represented or imagined in letters, diaries, memoirs, public celebrations, and histories. And Cushman is not a historian, but an English Professor at the University of Virginia. Although it may be tempting to dismiss him because of this, I find that Cushman brings a fresh perspective, fueled by his background in literary analysis and a solid grasp of the historiography surrounding this battle. The combination makes for a very enjoyable and reflective read.

There is a very short chapter in the beginning of the book which examines the meaning of the label “Civil War buff.” Cushman notes that the word “buff” is defined by Webster’s New International “As an enthusiast about going to fires”, and by the Third New International as a “Fan, Enthusiast, Devotee.” A recent Random House Dictionary defines “buff” as “a devotee or well-informed student of some activity or subject.” Cushman then proceeds to explain what troubles him about these definitions:

What’s wrong with the definitions above, or, more accurately, what is incomplete about them, immediately becomes apparent when we try to use buff as though it were merely a neutral synonym for a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable person. If, for example, one were to call a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable student of Christianity “a Jesus buff,” that epithet would sound disrespectful and offensive to many ears. Or if we called a passionately committed specialist in the history of the Nazi concentration camps “a Holocaust buff,” the tasteless trivializing behind the phrase would be palpable. We would never think of describing Abraham Lincoln as a “Union buff,” Jefferson Davis as a “states rights buff,” or Frederick Douglass as “an abolition buff.” (p. 22)

The problem with these definitions, if I understand Cushman, is the tension between the seriousness on the one hand and the playfulness or hobbyist nature of the buff. It is this latter quality that I was trying to point out in my earlier post, “Civil War Entertainment.” Cushman is correct to point out that it is only with the passage of time and the accompanying psychologically safe space that one can be entertained by the Civil War.

It is only in the safety of peace that people can have fun with war. When a man plasters his pickup truck with bumper stickers reading, “Happiness Is a Northbound Yankee,” “I had rather be dead than a Yankee,”. . . . “Southern by the Grace of God,” he seems to be carrying out a kind of deep memorializing that keeps the war present in his mind and that of anyone who sees his truck. But in fact he’s having it both ways, since it is only because the war is so long gone and absent from most people’s awareness that he can afford to brandish these inflammatory slogans. He appears to urge remembrance, but he does so in terms that depends on forgetting. (p. 25)

One can reduce Cushman’s explanation to what all of us already know, that bumper-stickered vehicles are driven by shallow people. The bumper sticker indicates that the individual is not serious about the past or at least unwilling to move beyond a set of simplistic and emotionally-laden assumptions. This crowd is perhaps the clearest example of a more diffuse population that relishes in the entertainment side of Civil War remembrance. Here is how Cushman closes this chapter:

As for me, though I confess there are many moments when I can manage to forget the war and think about something truly amusing, the war itself is not a source of amusement. I’m not enthusiastic about chasing firefighters, and the word buff does not describe me. For one thing, I don’t feel as secure about the boundary between war and peace as I’d like to, for reasons I’m still trying to discover. In the meantime, what word does describe my condition and that of people like me however many or few we are? I’m not sure, but I think it might be the word “sufferer,” as in the phrase “allergy sufferer.” I think I must be a Civil War sufferer. How else can I explain the itchy throat and watery eyes when I pass the Wilderness sign?

So are you a Civil War buff?

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7 thoughts on “Are You A Civil War Buff?

  1. Cash

    Kevin,

    I never liked “buff,” myself. I also don’t consider myself an “amateur historian.” I consider myself a student, since I study the war and the era that encompasses it. If I were researching and publishing the results of my research, I think I’d consider myself an amateur historian, but right now I’m just researching, so “student” works best for me.

    Regards,
    Cash

    Reply
  2. Eric Wittenberg

    Kevin,

    That one drives me nuts. When people hear of my interest in the Late Unpleasantness, the automatic response is either (a) “So, you’re a Civil War buff?” or (b) “Do you dress up and go those reenactments?”

    I hate ‘em both. With a deep and abiding passion.

    However, there’s a special place in my contempt for the buff question. With thirteen books in print and more than two dozen articles, I think we’re a little beyond that. Obsessed? Perhaps. Living in the past? Definitely. But a buff? I have to control myself and keep myself from wanting to pummel people when they ask that one.

    Eric

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin

    Hi Eric, — Why don’t you go ahead and tell us how you really feel about this issue (LOL). The other possibility is that they ask you if you play any of those computer/board games about the Civil War. My usual response is to say that when I was a boy I played Stratego and Risk.

    Reply
  4. Phil LeDuc

    Kevin,

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about Stephen Cushman and the different insights he brings to Civil War writing. I’ve had the good fortune to listen to his presentations at UVA’s Civil War Conferences the past two years, and they were fascinating. His talk on The Crater last year was almost worth the price of admission by itself.

    Reply
  5. John Maass

    Cushman’s look at the battle from a different perspective (which I have not read yet) reminds me of one of the most significant example of this type of fresh look–Paul Fussell’s book on the British in WWI entitled “The Great War and Modern Memory.” Fussell is an English professor and WWII veteran, and looks atthe war as a literary event and how it was remenbered as such. At the time it came out (late 70s) I am told, there was something of a debate as to whether or not it was a book of history, or lit crit, or something else. Well, it could be all three.

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  6. Kevin Levin

    I finally got around to reading Fussell’s book last year and absolutely loved it. Given your positive assessment of the book my guess is that you will enjoy Cushman. It’s easy to see why that book raised suspicion in the 70′s, but in the end I don’t care how you label it. It is a fascinating study.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    Paul Fussell’s memoir, “Doing Battle: The Making of Skeptic” sheds light on his purposes and motivations for writing “The Great War and Modern Memory.” Fussell says that his memoir, which discusses his own feelings of lost youth and trauma during World War II, was what he wanted to write all along, yet that would not have made an appropriate PhD dissertation. Thus, in some ways, he displaced that feeling into “The Great War and Modern Memory.” I don’t really think that detracts from his analysis at all, but this point does seem germane to the above discussion.

    Reply

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