Author Archives: Kevin Levin

About Kevin Levin

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Joan Waugh’s 2011 Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College

On November 19, Professor Joan Waugh delivered the 2011 Fortenbaugh Lecture at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg.  Professor Waugh’s lecture, “‘The Rebels Are Our Countrymen Again’: U.S. Grant and the Meaning of Appomattox” reexamines the familiar story of the historic surrender of Confederate forces to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The surrender at Appomattox is generally considered the end of the American Civil War, enshrining a powerful image of a peaceful, perfectly conducted closure to the bloody conflict. Yet the details of Grant’s magnanimous surrender document provoked debate, anger, and opposition among the Northern public. This mixed reception casts doubt on Appomattox as a shining moment of reunion and reconciliation, predicting the troubles that lay ahead for President Grant and the country in the postwar era.

A Response To Edward Sebesta

Back in September I responded to the first part of a multi-post essay by Edward Sebesta concerning the Museum of the Confederacy.  A few weeks back Sebesta responded on his blog.  I admit that characterizing Sebesta’s essay as a “rant” was a poor choice of words, but I maintain that it is a poorly researched essay.  The fundamental problem with his essay can be seen in a NYTs review of the museum by Edward Rothstein:

But if there is any success in the reconciliation of regional history and national history, it will not come easily. The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”

That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.

But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.

Satellite museums are being planned at other Civil War sites in Virginia. The museum’s scholarly resources are being promoted, and nostalgic trappings are being shed. Some of the institution’s tours focus on traditional subjects like Confederate foreign policy, but others examine relationships between free and enslaved blacks in Civil War Richmond, or discuss the lives of servants in the Confederate White House.

Rothstein nails in four paragraphs what Sebesta is no closer to understanding in a 4-part essay and that is that any evaluation of the MOC must be sensitive to its unique history, first as shrine to the Confederacy and more recently as a museum.  Admittedly, the line between a shrine and a museum is blurry and what lessons one walks away with will depend on a whole host of factors.  What is difficult to dispute, however, is that the MOC has undergone significant changes over the past few decades and that its evolution continues right through the sesquicentennial.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or that he has taken the time to interview some of the people mentioned such as John Coski and Waite Rawls III.  I have no doubt that Sebesta would have learned quite a bit by sitting down with the museum staff to learn about how they work to satisfy the expectations of various segments of its broader community.  In addition, while Sebesta is fond of quoting his favorite “neo-Confederate” sources he never comes to terms with the fact that the scholarly community has embraced the MOC.  The museum’s reflection of recent scholarship can be seen in both the books that they give prizes to as well as the quality of recent exhibits.

As I said in my initial post, a study of the MOC as it relates to public history and historical memory would make for a fascinating dissertation and/or book.  However, such a careful study is impossible to undertake when your paramount goal is to uncover “neo-Confederates” at every turn.

Does Gingrich’s Crater Novel Reflect Progress?

Ta-Nahesi Coates has some interesting things to say about my Gingrich review at The Atlantic.  This particular passage caught my eye:

This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]

On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee.  I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves.  As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory.  That story is now roughly 25 years old.  From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about.  Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?

Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole.  Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy.  We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story.  In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.

It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project.  As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received.  In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference.  Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well.  The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history.  At this point in the game that would constitute progress.

My Review of Newt Gingrich’s Crater Novel Published in The Atlantic

The Atlantic, December 5, 2011

Last week I mentioned that I went ahead and picked up a copy of Newt Gingrich’s new Civil War novel, The Battle of the Crater, at the insistence of my friend, Yoni Applebaum.  He suggested that I write a review and submit it to The Atlantic, which I went ahead and did.  Today the review is live on their website and I couldn’t be more pleased.  Thanks to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for reviewing it and especially for agreeing to publish it.  We are talking about cross-posting excerpts from specific posts on their site and I’ve been encouraged to go ahead and think about possible topics for future publication.

Welcome to those of you who have clicked through from The Atlantic.  If you are interested in commentary on the Civil War and historical memory you have come to the right place.  I’ve been blogging for six years now.  The subjects covered sit at the intersection of Civil War historiography, education, and public history.  I encourage you to take some time to browse the site.  You can join the Civil War Memory facebook page, which is a great way to keep track of the latest posts as well as other stories that relate to this blog’s theme.  Finally, click here for more information about my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Thanks so much for stopping by.

A Challenge to the Southern Heritage Preservation Group

It looks like the latest issue of Civil War Times magazine is now available at your local newsstand.  As I mentioned last week the issue features my co-written essay with Myra Chandler Sampson on Silas Chandler.  We intended the piece to challenge some of the more popular assumptions surrounding Silas’s relationship to Andrew as well as his Civil War experience.  Admittedly, the evidence that we were able to marshal is limited, which makes any attempt at a robust interpretation problematic.

I am not surprised to learn that the good folks at the Southern Heritage Preservation Page are upset with the piece.  Apparently, Gary Adams, who is the groups executive chairman, picked it up and he had this to say:

I picked up the latest issue of Civil War Times and found a story by one of many of you favorite writer this time credited to Kevin Levine and Myra Sampson (a descendant of Andrew Chandler)…. This is same magazine and author who had comments to his previous story censured and sent directed to the author. This resulted in discussions for boycotts of both the magazine and advertisers but we argued against that but I will admit we may have to reconsider that decision. The question remains whether or not the poor research is on purpose or attributed to a lack of talent.  Here it argues Silas was a servant not a soldier. What I found strange was they fail to mention the family was and is tore with the same argument.

Now I have no idea what Mr. Adams is referring to in regards to comments from a previous CWT article nor do I have any advice on whether it might be worthwhile to boycott the magazine and sponsors.

What I will offer Mr. Adams and the rest of this group is the opportunity to write a response to the specific claims made in this article that will be published on this blog.  You can’t beat that.  Historical interpretations are always in need of revision based on the gathering of additional sources or a counter-interpretation of existing evidence.  This would be a wonderful opportunity to bring together the collective knowledge and wisdom of the entire group against their number one enemy.  Best of all, they get to do it on this very blog.  I look forward to reading and learning from their research on Silas.