I had a wonderful time yesterday in Richmond and Petersburg with my new friend from Italy, Giuseppe. We got an early start and headed straight to Petersburg for a tour of the earthworks and the Crater specifically. It was quite interesting for me to be able to converse with Giuseppe as both a fellow Civil War enthusiast and as someone who is curious about how others think about the Civil War. Giuseppe is a fellow high school history teacher and holds a doctorate in political science. His English is excellent so there were no problems at all between us. I was immediately struck by his level of interest in military history. He rattled off the names of older Civil War historians and more recent scholars and displayed a remarkable grasp of the battles and leaders. Giuseppe can tell you which division was in which corps and he could cite the officers as well. We started at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park where we tagged along on a guided tour. At one stop the Park Ranger asked if anyone knew anything about the battle of the Crater. I waited a few seconds and then raised my hand and cited a few facts. I was awarded a shiny Junior Park Ranger badge which I will wear proudly whenever touring an NPS site. Needless to say that he was very impressed with the battlefields and while we couldn’t spend hours walking around each spot we made sure to spend a significant amount of time at the Crater where we sat for a nice lunch prepared by my wife. We ate Caprese sandwiches and drank Panna water which our guest very much appreciated. I think Giuseppe was most impressed with the battlefield at Malvern Hill. It is a wonderful battlefield that looks much like it did in 1862 and we took plenty of time to stand by the Union guns to survey and discuss the topography.
From there we followed the roads up past Glendale, Frazier Farm to Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor where we took short walks on both battlefields. From there we drove to the Virginia Historical Society so Giuseppe could pick up some research material that he had copied and from there we made our way over to Carey Street for coffee and dinner. We talked for hours about our common interest and spent considerable time talking about the influence of the Lost Cause on our respective perspectives. For Giuseppe the influence is apparent from the first word. He is absolutely enamored with Confederate generals and considers them to be both morally and militarily superior to their Union counterparts. He is heavily influenced by the work of D.S. Freeman and films such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals; however, at the same time he admires the recent scholarship of Gary Gallagher which questions the veracity of much of this traditional view. I appreciated Giuseppe’s willingness to allow me to probe his thinking and he was very forthcoming. The most interesting aspect of all of this is that Giuseppe clearly understands that his influences are relatively narrow and have been shaped by the nature of the literature that he was exposed to at an early age. I was surprised to learn that he sees the war in strictly economic terms and even more surprised by a comment about the supposed loyalty of slaves to the Confederacy. I did not pursue the latter point with much force. The conversation highlighted for me the pervasiveness of certain assumptions about the Civil War.
I was also interested to hear Giuseppe place his interest in the minutia of Civil War battlefields in broader context. He pointed out that very few Europeans have such an interest in reference to their own battlefields. They are much more interested in the broader political and economic issues that are both the cause and consequences of war. This is more evidence that our own fascination with such details is more culturally specific to Americans than we would like to admit. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does point to the question of why. And no, just because you enjoy it is not a satisfactory answer.
All in all it was a fun day and I am glad that I took the initiative to offer to take Giuseppe around while he was in Richmond. He is now off to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, and New York before he flies back to Italy at the end of the month. I made a new friend and am guaranteed a first-rate tour of Naples next time we are in Italy.