Author Archives: Kevin Levin

Saturday’s Strawman Argument

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Civil War Page of the Washington Times which is published every Saturday. The late Woody West gave me my first writing opportunity back in 1997 and I took full advantage of it. I had no idea what I was doing; however I learned a great deal and West was a pleasure to work with. I still read from time to time. Today I was treated with a “review” from the individual who asks us to rethink our understanding of the concept of friendship to include slaveholders. If only we could be so lucky in our lives to have such friends.

Today Richard Williams reviewed two recent releases that he believes force us to acknowledge that “Southerners have endured two never-ending accusations that, despite their inaccuracy, have made those from the region feel inferior because of their moral implications.” The first title is Bud Hall’s Den of Misery: Indiana’s Civil War Prison (Pelican Press) and the second is Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from the Slave Trade (Ballantine Books)

Williams doesn’t make any attempt to analyze the arguments contained in these studies. Rather he is content to frame his comments around a rather vague assumption: “However, with the recent release of two books, the truth finally is available to all who are willing to examine the facts objectively. What makes these two books so compelling is that they were written by Northerners.” It’s hard to know whether Williams is speaking for himself or the general public when it comes to describing these books as uncovering some kind of long-forgotten truth that has been suspended (one assumes) by those with nefarious interests.

In the case of the first title Williams seems completely oblivious to the historiography of Civil War prisons – both North and South. Perhaps he should be reminded of a few titles that explore in detail the conditions in Northern prisons. They include the edited collection Civil War Prisons (Kent State Press) by William B. Hesseltine. The essays go back to the 1950′s and Hesseltine’s own scholarship on the subject dates to the 1930′s. In addition there is Portals to Hell by Lonnie Speer and the newly-released book While in the Hands of the Enemy by Charles W. Sanders, Jr. (LSU Press). It is disingenuous to make claims about an entire area of historiography without any apparent understanding of the relevant literature. The problem is that further reading would detract from Williams’s initial claim that Southerners (and I assume he means white Southerners) have been the victims of a national lie.

Williams applies the same level of analysis to Complicity and seems to revel in the authors own conviction that they have discovered something new about the history of slavery in the North. He quotes the authors at length:

We have all grown up, attended schools, and worked in Northern states, from Maine to Maryland. We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong…. Slavery had long been identified in the national consciousness as a Southern institution. The time to bury that myth is overdue. Slavery is a story about America, all of America. Together, over the lives of millions of enslaved men and women, Northerners and Southerners shook hands and made a country.

These comments fit perfectly into the working assumptions of the reviewer and of course go unquestioned. There is little doubt that the general public assumes that slavery was specific to the South, but that does not in and of itself provide a sufficient reason to conclude that this is a subject that has gone unstudied. Williams emphasizes the book’s focus on New York City, but is he aware that one of the most comprehensive exhibits on the city’s connection to the “peculiar institution” recently opened at the New York Historical Society? There is even a wonderful companion book edited by Ira Berlin that includes a number of first-rate essays.

The final few sentences do not disappoint as the reviewers own prejudices shine forth: “Complicity is thoroughly researched, heavily footnoted and generously illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawing, maps, charts and documents. Unfortunately, the book has been largely ignored by many in academia and the mainstream media. But perhaps the rest of America will, like the authors, soon admit they were wrong about who should share the blame for slavery.” I assume that according to Williams the book has been ignored by academics because they wish to steer clear of the fact of Northern slavery. As I stand here typing this post I look to my left and notice at least four shelves of books about the history of slavery and race in the North. The books cover the colonial period through the twentieth century. All of them have been published in the last thirty years and most of them are authored by academic historians who teach in Northern schools.

A note to reviewers: Take the time to analyze the content of the book’s argument and refrain as much as possible from using the review to further your own agenda – especially if you are not familiar with the relevant historiography.

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: How Americans Have Commemorated and Remembered the Civil War

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 13th annual Civil War conference hosted by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I was honored to be asked to take part by historian and conference organizer Mark Snell.  The conference will take place between June 21-24.

Description

"Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn."  Most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War either, but many who do have a manufactured memory of what has been called the "crucible" of American history.  How has popular media manipulated, portrayed, or romanticized the Civil War?  How did the war’s veterans, post-war politicians, and interest groups remember the war or reconstruct its memory?  Why does the Civil War still conjure sectional, class, and racial tensions?  Why has a red, white, and blue flag, garnered with stripes and stars, evoked such emotion through the years?  This fascinating period of history still inspires debate and consternation, as well as admiration and respect.

During this long weekend of study and learning, we will focus on the forces which interacted to develop modern memory of the American Civil War.  Expert historians will help us to examine how perspectives have been shaped over more than 140 years of input and adaptation by various groups and schools of thought.

Speakers

John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, will be with us for the entire weekend to guide the learning process and contribute his expertise during talks and tours.  In his keynote lecture, he will identify and elaborate upon some of the variables that account for conflicting memories of the Civil War — using the battle flag controversy as the primary case study for that analysis.  John will also chair Sunday’s ever-popular panel discussion, during which much insight and wisdom flows, some questions are settled, and others are ignited.

Kevin M. Levin teaches history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts a blog called Civil War Memory.  His extensive background in history and philosophy has given him searing insights into the idiosyncrasies and the implications of Civil War history and memory.  In his talk, "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory," Kevin will examine the ways Southerners reinterpreted this pivotal episode during the Battle of Petersurg throughout the postwar.  Memories of the Crater and Confederate Major General William Mahone proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, and the drive towards national reunion.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we more clearly can understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

William Blair is Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and Professor of American History at Penn State University.  Blair’s presentation, "The Politicization of Memorial Days," places the development of memorial holidays, Emancipation Day celebrations, and other remembrances in the context of Reconstruction politics and race relations in the South.  His research examines these civic rituals and demonstrates that the politics of commemoration remained far more contentious than has been previously acknowledged.  Blair’s analysis shows that some festive occasions that we celebrate even today have a divisive and sometimes violent past as various groups with conflicting political agendas attempted to define the meaning of the Civil War.

Thomas Clemens is a renowned expert on the Battle of Antietam and the editor of the Ezra Carmen papers, a post-war compendium of recollections by the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Leading the tour of Antietam National Battlefield, Tom will combine his knowledge of the battlefield and the memories of the battle’s participants to comment on the formation of battle legacy, commemoration, and interpretation.

G. Kurt Piehler is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.  During his presentation, he will recount American efforts to commemorate wars by erecting monuments, designating holidays, forming veterans’ organizations, and establishing national cemeteries.  Kurt’s experience with history and memory is extensive, having worked previously gathering more than 200 interviews with military veterans for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.  He is author of Remembering War the American Way.

Click here for the Registration Form

Letters Discovered by General Robert E. Rodes

Among my co-workers are descendants of two prominent Confederate generals.  The first is descended from Stephen D. Ramseur and the other from Robert E. Rodes. General Rodes was arguably one of the best division commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia. Unfortunately we know little about his outlook on the war owing to the fact that his wife burned his letters following his death.

His private correspondence save a (precious) few letter, I burned…and also his correspondence with [his] brother of which I kept a few mementoes only.

Well today I received a phone call indicating that a few of his letters were found by a family member.  Copies are on their way to me as I type this.  Are these the "precious few" letters that are referenced above?  We will soon find out.  Stay tuned.

The National Park Service’s Lincoln: A Response to Professor Schaefer

Professor of Political Science David Lewis Schaefer just published an online article over at the National Review titled, “Deconstructing the Lincoln Memorial.”  He is apparently upset with what he discovered about Lincoln and his legacy on the National Park Service’s website for the Lincoln Memorial.  His concern centers specifically on a link that provides a very brief explanation of why and under what conditions the memorial was built.  I will leave it to you to read the full entry, but here is a brief passage:

The period between 1865-1909 was a period marked as a time of incredible technological advances, rapid industrial growth, and imperialistic expansionism; of enflamed patriotism during and after the Spanish-American War; and a continuance of Jim Crow laws, the exploitation of the working class, and Tammany Hall-style politics. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that the predominately white, classically minded and university educated, upper-middle class generation of architects and engineers that built the Lincoln Memorial would stress the theme of National Unity over that of Social Justice.

Schaefer takes this brief passage and characterizes the NPS’s website as anti-Lincoln and politically tainted with a “liberal” bias.  According to the author: “What we really need to know, according to the National Park Service, is that the United States was nearly as evil, in its own way, as the anti-liberal forces it defeated, from the Confederate States to the Soviet Union.”  The problem with Schaefer’s argument is that he takes a rather brief overview of the motivation behind the design, construction and 1922 dedication of the memorial and makes a sweeping generalization about the content of the site as a whole.  I have no problem if Schaefer wants to argue that the historical explanation of the memorial is problematic; unfortunately, he provides no such explanation.  His article betrays a lack of any serious understanding of what public history involves or why it is sometimes important to distinguish between a memorial and the event/ideal/individual it represents.  Even worse, Schaefer’s piece is intellectually dishonest.

Does the website provide an overall negative view of Lincoln as suggested by Schaefer?  On the opening page of the site there is a passage that reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Beneath these words, the 16th President of the United States—the Great Emancipator and preserver of the nation during the Civil War—sits immortalized in marble. As an enduring symbol of Freedom, the Lincoln Memorial attracts anyone who seeks inspiration and hope.”

Click the link for “Lincoln the Man” and you will find the following: “For many Americans the Lincoln Memorial is a secular sacred space or temple commemorating the nation’s savior and first assassinated president. Having led the country through the long night of civil war, Abraham Lincoln would not live to see the dawn of “a new birth of freedom” he spoke of so eloquently. This freedom would take two tangible forms: freedom for the thousands of emancipated slaves or the legacy of Social Justice and the freedom found in a reunited country or the legacy of National Unity, with a fully restored federal government under the Constitution, ensuring the continuance of participatory democracy.”

And finally, here is a short passage from “The War Years“: “During his term in office, his thinking evolved from reestablishing the Union as it was, to remolding the Union into what it could be. His evolution, some have argued, signaled a true revolution within the American Republic. Abraham Lincoln-war president-miraculously transformed this nation during its most “fiery trial,” preserving the integrity of the Federal Union while accelerating within it the extirpation of antebellum culture, society, and thought.”

Perhaps Professor Schaefer had to meet a deadline for the National Review and didn’t have time to do an extensive survey of the material on the site.  I tend to think, however, that Professor Schaefer went in with a conclusion about the politics of the National Park Service and looked for those passages that would support his assumptions.

University Press Blogs

The other day one of the university press blogs emailed me with links that they hoped I would cite in one of my posts.  I thought about it and arrived at the conclusion that I was not going to comply with the request.  To be honest I was actually just a bit offended by the request.  The historian is a prominent figure in the field, and I’ve mentioned the book in question at least twice over the past few weeks.  Let me first say that I have no problem linking books mentioned on this site to either Amazon or the publisher in question.  One of my goals for this blog is to highlight titles that I believe are worth reading and which will deepen the readers understanding of the Civil War.

My problem is that the request stems directly from the publisher and fails to include any compensation for utilizing space that I pay for.  This is actually the second request that I’ve received over the past few weeks in addition to numerous requests sent from individuals who now see the blogosphere as a cheap and efficient way to market their books.  I don’t blame them for taking these steps, but this essentially involves turning my weblog into a marketing tool and that’s where I draw the line.  I will not be used.

New Policy

Those wishing to utilize my blog for marketing purposes must send me the books in question for review.  I wish to be treated as a book editor for an academic journal.  Books should be sent for consideration on a no-return-basis.  I will make it a policy to announce something along the lines of “books received.” In addition, I make no promises that books sent will be reviewed along traditional lines; brief citations may be the end of it.  As I’ve pointed out before it only takes a hyperlink to connect the reader with the book.