Author Archives: Kevin Levin

The Politically Incorrect [or just the Incorrect] Guide to the Civil War

33163412The good people at Regnery Publishing offered to send me a complimentary copy of the latest in their series of politically incorrect guides, which I kindly accepted.  I figured I would at least get a few laughs out of it, but as I made my way through it I couldn’t help but think that this is nothing but a huge waste of paper. The book is essentially for people who are already convinced that there is a conspiracy against Confederate culture and that intellectuals in the academy are against all things Southern.  In that sense this book is a 350 page security blanket, kind of like a trusted friend that you can always count on to help bail you out of those tight situations when ideas are being discussed.  Consider the blurb on the back cover:

The politically correct history that dominates our schools and universities insists that Jefferson Davis was another Hitler, Robert E. Lee was the equivalent of Rommel, and the Confederate States of America was our own little version of the Third Reich–a blot on American history.

From the website:

The Politically Incorrect GuideTM to the Civil War
is a joyful, myth-busting, rebel yell that shatters today’s Leftist and
demeaning stereotypes about the South and the Civil War—showing why, in
G. K. Chesterton’s words, “America and the whole world is crying out
for the spirit of the Old South.” Civil War buffs, Southern partisans,
and everyone who is tired of liberal self-hatred that vilifies
America’s greatest heroes—must have this book on their bookshelf.

That’s called a strawman argument, which involves creating an enemy that doesn’t really exist and than tearing it down.  I think this logical fallacy is covered on the first day of Critical Thinking 101.  The book has a hilarious feature called “Books Yankees Don’t Want You to Read” which includes Jefferson Davis’s Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the War, and Clifford Dowdey’s The History of the Confederacy.

The book has a wonderfully cartoonish quality to it, which makes it the perfect gift for the person who will never pick up a serious work of history.

Were You Lucky Enough to Attend a High School Named After a Slaveowner and Founder of the Ku Klux Klan?

Well, if you attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida (of all places) after 1959 you probably did.  How did a high school in Florida end up being named after a Confederate general from Tennessee?  It turns out that when the school opened in 1959 various interest groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy, competed to win the chance to name the school.  The UDC won and the school was named for Nathan B. Forrest.  It was an ideal name for a school in the South at the height of “Massive Resistance” against a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.

On November 3 the Duval County School Board will vote on whether to change the name of the school.  Of course, not everyone is happy about such a possibility given their commitment to ensure that our youth model their lives on such upstanding Americans as Forrest:

Bodie Catlin, owner of a truck accessories retailer who speaks publicly about Confederate history, has been an outspoken supporter of keeping the school’s name and said Forrest was a man of his time who was “nice” to his slaves.

“They loved him,” he said. “The only people [in favor of the name change] are people from the North who don’t care about our heritage and some that think the whole war was fought over slavery.”

It’s always those damn northerners who are getting in the way.  Stay tuned for further updates.

Is Dimitri Accusing James McPherson of Plagiarism?

51rbYvhY5RL._SS500_ Well, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Dimitri Rotov doesn't like James McPherson's new study of Abraham Lincoln as commander-in-chief.  I have to admit that I had anticipated a nauseating analysis of how McPherson fails to understand the nature of the relationship between Lincoln, his generals, and McClellan in particular.  Instead, Rotov accuses McPherson of one form of plagiarism and for appropriating the analytical phrase, "concentration in time" from Archer Jones without attribution.  It's worth reading posts, which can be found here and here.  As for the first claim, readers will find it difficult to judge since Dimitri fails to quote McPherson in full.  Since I have a copy of the book I went through the references in question, but failed to see what was so troubling.  Readers can decide for themselves.  As for the more serious second claim, here is the crux of the argument:

It is not until 1992, when Archer Jones' Civil War Command and Strategy appears that the repeated, wholesale, anachronistic application of "concentration" (attributed to Clausewitz) displaces "simultaneous." Jones again stresses Lincoln's centrality to simultaneous operations and he is relentless in calling simultaneity "concentration in time." "Concentration" is Jones' signature and stamp on Lincoln's involvement in synchronous operations[.]

If the term "concentration in time" does not appear in the primary sources, if the application of this Clausewitzian expression to Lincoln's strategy is unusual and a hallmark of Jones (also Hattaway plus Jones), has not James M. McPherson transgressed?

Perhaps I fail to follow Dimitri's argument, but his charge of plagiarism seems to come down to the assumption that Archer Jones was the first historian/writer to utilize the phrase, "concentration in time" and McPherson fails to reference this in any of his endnotes.  Is that about the size of it?  If this is it than what are we to make of the following letter written by Gen. Beuaregard to Jefferson Davis on February 21, 1865:

Should the enemy advance into North Carolina and towards Charlotte and Salisbury, as is now certain, I earnestly urge a concentration in time of at least thirty-five thousand infantry and artillery at latter point, if possible, to give him battle there and crush him[.]

Consider the following passage written by Cadmus M. Wilcox', which can be found in History of the Mexican War (1892):

The first difficulty anticipated by General Scott was the concentration in time, off the Brazos, of a force large enough to give reasonable hopes of success before the usual period–end of March–of the return of the black vomit to the coast of Mexico.

I did a Google search and found the passage within 3 minutes.  I also found the phrase used in William T. Sherman's memoir.  My guess is that there are plenty more where that came from.  For now it is enough to say that Dimitri's central claim – that Archer Jone coined the phrase – is simply false.  Perhaps Dimitri should investigate as to whether Jones properly attributed the phrase.

Note: A reader reminded me that I failed to make one final point in reference to Dimitri's accusations.  I agree that McPherson should have cited some of the secondary literature on this particular point of "concentration in time."  Keep in mind, however, that there is no bibliography and McPherson cites only a limited number of secondary sources in the endnotes.  The notes are devoted almost entirely to personal and official correspondence.  Finally, I am surprised that Dimitri didn't mention that McPherson cites the work of his buddy, Russell Beattie.  C'mon…McPherson can't be all that bad. (LOL)

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

Glory-DVDcoverToday my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie.  Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick.  The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863.  Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong.  One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th.  This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning.  As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves.  Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts and other parts of the North.  Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.

Beyond pointing out such oversights throughout the movie I want my students to be able to think critically about the choices that go into historically-inspired movies such as Glory.  Such questions can include character development and the broader message that movie producers and writers hope to convey to their audience.  In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom.

The problem is that this completely ignores the history of the regiment through to the end of the war and the challenges that it continued to face.  In fact, a broader look at the history of the 54th suggests that it was not at the hands of angry Confederate soldiers that constituted the gravest threat to black Union soldiers, but their own government.  It is with this in mind that my students are now reading a wonderful article by Donald Yacovone, titled “The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, The Pay Crisis, and the “Lincoln Despotism”” which is included in the edited collection, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).

The “pay crisis” is depicted in that wonderful scene where both Shaw and his men tear up their vouchers after learning that they are to be paid under the terms set out in the Militia Act of 1862  – $10 for black soldiers as opposed to $13 for white soldiers.  Unfortunately, the scene is used to highlight the evolution of Shaw’s identification with his men and is promptly dropped as an issue.  Well, it was an issue throughout much of the unit’s history and it grew worse following the failed assault at Wagner in July 1863 and Shaw’s death.  The article does an excellent job of detailing the steps that both the men of the 54th and its new colonel took to convince the Lincoln administration to rectify the situation.  The situation continued to deteriorate following the Federal defeat at Olustee, Florida as tension in the ranks grew culminating in cases of mutinous discontent.  The most notorious case occurred on February 29, 1864 when Sergeant William Walker faced a firing squad for protesting unequal pay after ordering his company to stack arms in front of their colonel’s tent in November 1863.   Shortly thereafter, Private  Wallace Baker was arrested and executed for striking an officer after refusing to obey an order to fall in for company inspection, also in protest over pay.

It was not until July 1864 that Congress revoked its stance on the issue and awarded the men equal pay from the first day of their service.  I am hoping that this broader focus will give us much to discuss in class tomorrow.  I want to touch on questions of how Hollywood shapes our perceptions of important historical events as well as how this broader focus helps us to anticipate the challenges of Reconstruction and the federal government’s eventual abandonment of these men and the cause of black civil rights.  This reminds me of my favorite scene in the movie which precedes the assault at Wagner.  Shaw approaches Tripp and asks him to carry the regimental colors in the next engagement.  Tripp refuses and a brief conversation ensues regarding the possible consequences of the war.  At one point Tripp asks, “What are we going to get”?  The movie leaves the viewer with a sense of optimism for the future; on the other hand, Yacovone’s piece better prepares students with the tragic quality of Tripp’s question.

Tall Flag Poles as Compensation

[Hat-Tip to Robert Moore]

Looks like the SCV in the good state of Tennessee is pushing for zoning amendments that will have the potential to legitimize an 80-foot-tall flagpole which will support a Confederate flag measuring 20-by-30-foot.  According to the article some “have described the display as a ‘political agenda’ and a warning to motorists on Interstate 155 that they have entered the South – a country within a country.”

Let me suggest something a bit more Freudian.  Perhaps these guys are compensating for inadequacies or shortcomings in other departments – if you know what I mean.