The Lost Cause is Alive and Well in Italy

Picture_002_2I 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 ParkPicture_2 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. 

Picture_003From 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. 

Ciao!

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8 comments… add one

  • mannie gentile Mar 23, 2008

    Kevin,

    First of all, at Antietam you would have had to worked for that Junior Ranger badge, only to be informed,BY ME, “sorry SIR, you’re too old!

    Otherwise it sounds like you had an outstanding and very telling experience with a fellow paisan from Italia.

    This was a wonderful post and illuminated quite clearly how we, as Americans, are perceived through our history by others (who have even more history).

    Best wishes,

    Mannie

  • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2008

    I can’t help it if I was the only one who knew the answer. And since when has the NPS practiced age discrimination? (LOL) Glad you enjoyed the post Mannie.

  • Larry Cebula Mar 24, 2008

    I am jealous of your junior ranger badge.

    However, you have misused the phrase “begs the question,” which properly means to evade a question, NOT to invite a question. (This is my own lost cause.)

  • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2008

    Larry, — Very sloppy writing for a former philosophy major. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Woodrowfan Mar 24, 2008

    From my experience with European historians I think they’re more interested in theory than most US historians. That’s not to say that US historians ignore theory, or that European ones ignore original documents, but that the Europeans seem to look at the theory first. (I am basing this generalization on long discussion on Wilson I’ve had with several European historians in the past few years. I tended to pull out documents to illustrate a point and they tended to pull out theories to illustrate their arguments.)

    morally and militarily superior to their Union counterparts.
    OK, this bothers me on several levels. It bothers me because it’s so closely tied to Neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” ideology. It’s also such a sweeping judgment (he says after having just generalized about European historians as a group) and somewhat reductionist as it reduces the Northern victory to materialistic factors. If the Union generals were all inferior then how did the North win? It must have been numbers of men and material. I think it’s too complicated a question to reduce to one factor.

    Just some stray thoughts.

    WF

  • Woodrowfan Mar 25, 2008

    Something that just occurred to me. It may or may not be valid but I wanted to toss it out there.

    A lot of the European “lost causes” of the mid-19th century were Republican and/or nationalist revolutions against monarchies. The revolutions of 1848, Poland in the 1860s, Ireland several times, various French revolutions. These revolts tend to be favorably remembered now. Could the European regard for the Confederate “Lost Cause” come, at least in part, from attributing from how they regard other revolutions of the same period?

  • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2008

    Woodrow, — There may be something to that. My friend Giuseppe was quite open about his southern Italian roots as having something to do with his affinity for the Lost Cause. I wish I had your question to ask on Sunday.

  • Giuseppe Rufino Sep 13, 2008

    Giuseppe e la Guerra Civile Americana

    Hello everybody.
    I spent a great time during my journey in America and my visit in Virginia was simply perfect.It was a great opportunity for me to accomplish a research work I had been doing for more than three years.The issue was a book about the battle of Gettysburg .In first place I seize the opportunity here to convey my thankfulness to Kevin for the support he kindly provided to me,without his and of many other people who joined me my work would be quite different.As far as the knowledge of the Civil War in Italy is concerned ,well it’s fairly improving and caught the attention of many readers in the last few years,which I consider a big step forward
    I hope to join you in which I consider one of the best blogs on net about the American CW,also to reply to questions you may ask me and bring the view of my readers to you

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