Monthly Archives: November 2008

3 Easy Installments of $33.00

I came across this little tidbit in today’s NYT’s Media and Advertising Section. Apparently, American Heritage’s special issue on Abraham Lincoln includes an advertisement for the Bradford Exchange’s Civil War ring, which features a Confederate flag. I’m not quite sure what the editor finds so troubling about this or why it was necessary to include commentary from James McPherson and Eric Foner.

“It’s a little uncomfortable,” Edwin S. Grosvenor, the magazine’s editor in chief, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Grosvenor said he became aware of the advertisement, placed by the Bradford Exchange collectibles company, just before the magazine’s deadline and that he had to walk a fine line between generating revenue and maintaining editorial tone.

Perhaps it’s been a slow week in this particular department as a cursory glance of history magazines, especially Civil War, reveal a wide range of advertisements for Confederate-inspired products, from bras and bikinis to beer mugs, and bed sheets. The article alludes to, but never explores, the apparent conflict between a magazine devoted to Lincoln an an ad for Confederate schlock. Unfortunately, the opportunity to comment on the reasons for the pervasiveness of Confederate imagery, or the popularity of the Lost Cause was missed, even though both McPherson and Foner are qualified to discuss it. Instead, the two draw the reader’s attention to the controversial nature of the Confederate flag, while McPherson suggests that he would have spoken out had he known about this particular advertisement. Does McPherson really not know that most of the articles he has published in the pages of popular Civil War magazines are littered with such advertisements? That’s is a truly remarkable comment.

Anyway, stock is limited, so order now.

Civil War Memory Syllabus

This coming trimester I will be teaching two sections of a course I am calling Civil War Memory. This is the first time that I’ve taught an elective course on the subject, and, as you can imagine, I am very much looking forward to it. Most of the students who are taking the course just completed a trimester elective on the Civil War while the others took either my survey or AP course in American history last year. Although the syllabus is not finalized I have enough that I can share it with you. You will notice that I have not included any assignments or a description of the final project as I am still working on it. Please keep in mind that this is a high school elective course.

Course Description:

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961. Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans. This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture. We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory. Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces. We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square. Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia. Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.

Books:

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’ Press, 2004). [Please note that much of the course is structured around this book.]

Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage, 1999).

Week 1: Introduction to the Course

Questions: What is memory? Why do we find a need to remember and what is the difference between individual and collective memory? Why are Americans interested in their civil war and where can we find examples of civil war remembrance?

Readings: In Brown, read pp. 1-15; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s Gettysburg Address (1913); In Blight, read pp. 6-15.

Week 2: Monuments and Soldiers – analysis of the evolution of civic monuments, including their designs, and inscriptions. Why were they built, where, by whom and for what purposes?

Readings: David Blight article on soldiers and memory from North and South Magazine; William Henry Trescott, Inscription on South Carolina Soldiers Monument, 1879, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Soldier’s Faith, May 30, 1895

[We will take our first field trip to observe and analyze Civil War monuments in the Charlottesville area.]

Week 3: Contemporary Commemorations – Analysis of recent debates surrounding the legacy of Civil War soldiers and battlefield interpretation. Students will search the news for examples of controversies surrounding the Confederate flag.

Readings: NAACP resolution on Confederate flag (2000); Charley Reese editorial (1997); Fredericksburg commemoration talk by Kevin Levin; John Coski article on the history of the Confederate flag from North and South Magazine.

Week 4: Women of the War – Analysis of the roles that women played throughout the postwar period from grave dedications to textbook oversight.

Readings: In Brown, pp. 57-74; Primary sources by Clara Barton, Howard M. Hamill, and Laura Martin Rose; in Fahs and Waugh, read James McPherson’s “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Southern Textbook Crusade”.

Week 5 and 6: Confederate heroes and the Lost Cause – Analysis of the evolution of the memory of Lee and other notable Confederate figures. We will pay particular attention to monuments, including the Lee equestrian statue in Richmond.

Readings: Primary sources by John W. Daniel, Abram J. Ryan, Charles Francis Adams Jr., as well as commentary from both white and black newspapers. In Brown, pp. 79-105 and Blight selections from Race and Reunion.

[We will take our second field trip to Richmond to tour Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery.]

Week 7: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment – Analysis of the most famous black regiment from the Civil War, including the monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Readings: Primary sources by Anna Quincy Waterston, Frances E.W. Harper, William James, Booker T. Washington, Paul L. Dunbar, Robert Lowell; read chapter 9, “Black Memory and Progress of the Race” in Blight’s Race and Reunion.

Week 8: Lincoln Legacies – Analysis of the evolution of Lincoln’s place in American memory and culture with particular focus on recent comparisons with Barack Obama and Lincoln.

Readings: Recent newspaper articles and editorials; primary sources by Henry M. Turner, Frederick Douglass, F. Wellington Ruckstull, George B. Shaw; In Brown, pp. 139-65 and article by Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt, “Lincoln in ‘Modern’ Art” in Gabor Boritt, ed., The Lincoln Enigma.

Week 9: The Civil War in Contemporary Culture – Analysis of reenactments and other forms of popular Civil War memory.

Readings: Selections from Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War. We will also watch scenes from Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, Shenandoah, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Week 10: Final Projects (TBA)

The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk (continued)

Yesterday, I briefly touched on some of my concerns surrounding a commemorative talk that I am scheduled to deliver in December for the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Part of the reason I find it so difficult to commemorate a Civil War battle has to do with my tendency to interpret the war years as extending much further than 1865. In fact, the framework that I work with follows closely with the recent interpretation by Vernon Burton, in his sweeping survey of the nineteenth century, The Age of Lincoln. Burton views the period as ending with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which severly limited the freedoms and civil rights of African Americans. By then most Southern state constitutions had been rewritten to legally enforce and legitimize white supremacy.

Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to Burton:

At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)

Rather than acknowledging the war years as part of a larger sweep of history and push toward greater freedoms we have reduced it to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the symbolism of national reunion; implied in this perspective is the view that the meaning or significance of the battles themselves can be found in the extent to which they contributed to this outcome.

This is a mistake. In recent years historians have explored Reconstruction, both politically and militarily, with an emphasis on the level of violence that persisted after the war by paramilitary units throughout the South. As someone who has spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the battle of the Crater it is fairly easy to draw connections from July 1864 to the street battles in New Orleans as well as the Colfax Massacre. On a related note, our view of Civil War soldiers as apolitical lends itself to this tendency to isolate the Civil War from the more divisive political questions of Reconstruction. It allows us to focus on those battlefield virtues that connected the soldiers on both sides even as we ignore the intense disagreements that help us to explain why they were fighting to begin with. We can no longer ignore the fact that soldiers on both sides closely followed the news and debated issues of slavery and race. My recent foray into the world of Confederate demobilization following Appomattox has only served to reinforce my belief that Lee’s men did not return home having left the political and social implications of defeat behind. I recently learned that in South Carolina men applied for the state’s Confederate pension even though they were too young to have served in the Confederate army. This little tidbit suggests that from the perspective of the State of South Carolina, the Civil War was not yet over.

For those of us interested in memory, commemoration, and the continued relevance of the Civil War we ought to take South Carolina’s pension policy seriously. It offers one among many ways to better understand the place of the Civil War within the nineteenth century and the struggle for greater civil liberties for blacks, women, and later the “common man”, as expressed in the Populist Movement, which Burton notes came to an end as a party in 1896.

It may be difficult to see how a commemorative talk is possible given such a perspective, but it seems to me that it allows for a more meaningful reflection on the relevancy of the Civil War. The loss of civil rights for most black Americans by the end of the nineteenth century was not inevitable; in fact, there were significant achievements on the grassroots level and beyond throughout the country, including the South. There is no need to filter this history into an overly simplistic morality play. The Supreme Court did indeed strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883 and in Hurtado v. California (1884), but this did not prevent states in the Midwest, such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska, from passing their own civil rights statutes. And in the South, while white southerners continued to resist black civil rights by joining paramiliatary organizations and the Ku Klux Klan, others, such as William Mahone, James Longstreet, P.G. T. Beauregard, and John S. Mosby championed black rights. Former Virginia Governor Henry Wise’s son, also a Confederate officer, became a prominent civil rights attorney by the early twentieth century.

I guess my point is that we do not have to run away from history when we commemorate it. In fact, it is only through embracing it, in all of its complexity, that we truly do justice to the sacrifices, achievements, and yes, failures, of our forebears. So how does the battle of Fredericksburg, fought on the eve of emancipation, fit into this broader sweep of American history?

To be continued…

The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk

I don’t mind admitting that I am just a little nervous about the upcoming commemorative speech that I will give in Fredericksburg on December 14.  I’ve never delivered such a speech before.  It’s much easier to present a traditional conference paper where the speaker at least appears to be detached from the subject at hand.  A commemorative talk on the anniversary of a famous Civil War battle, however, demands that the speaker share something more personal and in a way that facilitates an other-regarding emotion in the audience such as empathy or sympathy.  I assume most of the people who attend will want to hear something uplifting, perhaps something that reinforces a personal connection through an ancestor who fought in the war or maybe even something that dovetails with our popular perceptions of the Civil War, which at times border on the celebratory.  In the end we want to know that they (the soldiers) matter and that the bloodshed, death, and sacrifice continues to occupy a central place in our broader national narrative, one that is characterized by its exceptionalism and intrinsic goodness.

It seems to me, however, that to get to this point one must engage in a great deal of reductionism from the complex to the overly simplistic.  Doesn’t this constitute a significant portion of the history of Civil War commemoration from end of the twentieth century onward?  By their very nature commemorative talks must look beyond moral complexity, contingency, and doubt to embrace the whiggish principles that Americans so easily embrace.  I’ve never felt comfortable approaching the past in this manner.  An example of what I am getting at can be found in Mark Grimsley’s most recent post at Civil Warriors which includes a refernce to an essay by Kent Gramm:

In the introduction to a recent book on Civil War combat, historian Kent Gramm opens with a surprising comment: “One of the most harmful consequences of the Civil War results from our very interest in the war, and our attraction to it.” As a Civil War buff, he explains, you can vicariously march with the indomitable veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, you can learn from the men of the Army of the Potomac’s Iron Brigade what it means to be a hero, you can return in imagination to a moment when “the hopes of a nation are still young and still full, and a kind of clarity and innocence are still poised to win the future — and the smoke and noise and dirt of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not yet swept in behind the buzzing machines of our age.”

“Who would not love such a war?” Gramm asks. But that war, he continues, “is a war of fantasy, myth, and entertainment,” not a war of carnage, horror, and desolation. “By replacing this actual Civil War with an imaginary and beautiful war,” he argues, “we misunderstand our own natures, and we allow ourselves to fall for what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’: that it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country. Falling for that old lie, we enter more easily into what should be entered into only as one would enter a corridor to hell: you go that way only because all the other ways are shut.”

I venture to suggest that while much of my audience operates within the confines of the first paragraph I have my feet firmly planted in the latter.  No doubt, this has much to do with the fact that I have no familial connection to the war and no childhood experiences of traveling to Civil War battlefields or dreaming of what might have been at Gettysburg.

Still, I can’t help but think that there is a commemorative element in how I use Civil War battlefields such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as teaching tools.  Just the act of visiting and walking the ground serves to collapse the distance between present and past.  Yes, I tell plenty of stories of heroic acts, but the goal of the visit has very little to do with celebrating heroism or war in any of its guises.  How can I celebrate something that I have no direct experience with?  I am much more interested in planting questions in my students than giving them answers.  What do these battles tell us about American democracy?  Did the Civil War lead to a rebirth of freedom?  Was the outcome of the Civil War worth the price in blood and suffering?  It’s not my job as a teacher to answer these questions because they are not questions that can be answered by any one individual.

I am even more reluctant to wax poetic about Civil War soldiers.  I’ve never been able to walk a battlefield and reduce the fighting to time-honored heroic categories that are staples of Civil War commemorations and remembrance.  In fact, it seems to me that this is a straight-path toward simplifying their stories to the point of triviality and meaninglessness.  I want my students to embrace and understand both the individual and collective stories of these men without coming away with an overly sanitized view that has no connection beyond the battlefield and the divisive questions that were of paramount concern and which help to explain why they fought to begin with.  To ignore these tough questions is to use these men and the past as a means to our own ends.

To be continued…