I Believe in a Silent Rational Majority

Today I read a Facebook update from a history professor, who is dealing with the fallout over a recent essay on Antietam that he published in the Wall Street Journal. Like everything else he writes, it was a thoughtful essay, but it should come as no surprise to those of you familiar with sites with unmoderated comments that the article received a great deal of negative and abusive feedback. Unfortunately, this professor chose to correspond with one particular commenter, who has over the years also leveled his attacks on me for my supposedly anti-Confederate/South views. Like many of my most vocal critics, the individual in question does not live in the South. In this case he lives in Long Island, New York. The correspondence eventually made its way to the office of the president of the professor’s college.

I certainly understand the frustration and that sense of futility when reading comment after comment of such vitriol and having to deal with nasty personal emails. I’ve got a file of hundreds of such emails. While teaching in Virginia I had to deal with regular telephone calls and emails sent to the school headmaster. Just this past week I was called a Nazi on another website and recently I complained about the quality of feedback that followed one of my recent essays at the Atlantic. It’s an unfortunate part of the online world.

I could offer a few words of reassurance and advice to this professor. First, don’t correspond with these people. It accomplishes nothing and what you write will likely make its way to the Internet as was the case here. It is important to keep in mind that the comments section of most sites is likely to be populated by people who feel the most defensive. The vitriol and name calling is a reflection of their ignorance and inability to engage in an intelligent discussion. The only resort is to shut down any and all discussion. I do my best to remember that the vast majority of people who read what I write will never leave a comment on the blog or communicate with me personally. They may not agree, but hopefully they will consider what I’ve written and pass it along through one of the many social media channels. I believe in a silent rational majority.

Maintaining a blog or other social media platform is not for everyone and I certainly understand that, but it is hard to sympathize with people who dabble in the web 2.0 world. It is safe to say that this professor’s job has not been threatened one bit by this correspondence. In the future he can refrain from publishing articles on sites that allow for unmoderated commenting or he can refrain from publishing online entirely.

Informing your community that there are ignorant and hate-filled people out there is not news. What I want to know is how we can respond in a constructive way to this environment. What responsibilities do we as teachers [k-12 and beyond] have to prepare our students to engage one another in online communities? The maintenance of a vibrant online world has become essential to our democracy. Where else but the classroom can we learn to be civil to one another?

Most people who experience the nastiness of online discussion throw up their hands and abandon the idea completely. It takes a lot of work to maintain an online space that nurtures passionate and thoughtful exchanges. Just ask Ta-Nahesi Coates.

My response to all of this is Civil War Memory.  What is yours?

Appearance on Civil War Talk Radio

Earlier today I was interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio by Gerry Prokopowicz of East Carolina University.  We talked mainly about the book, including the battle, William Mahone’s political career, the two Crater reenactments, and briefly about interpretation at the Crater today.  This is my second appearance on CWTR.  The first time was back in 2006 when I had just published a short article about the battle in America’s Civil War.  Nice to be able to return to talk about the book and a much broader story.  Thanks to Gerry for another enjoyable experience on the radio.

Listen to the interview here.

Assessing the Sesquicentennial

It’s probably too late to say anything substantial about the sesquicentennial at this stage, but two recent events suggest that Americans remain interested in the Civil War and continue to travel to various destinations in impressive numbers.  Fellow bloggers Robert Moore and Craig Swain both attended events commemorating the 150th of Antietam and were encouraged by what they saw.  This past weekend John Hennessy attended and spoke at an event built around the famous August 19, 1862 photograph of slaves crossing the Rappahannock River to freedom.  He estimates that anywhere between 300 and 350 people were in attendance.  Finally, it will come as no surprise that Gettysburg is bracing for a large turnout next summer.

We continue to enjoy a steady stream of Civil War books from both academic and popular publishers.  I also get the sense that public history programs related to the Civil War era have continued at a healthy pace.  All in all, I remain very optimistic.  What do you think?

Note: Later today I will be a guest on Civil War Talk Radio with Gerry Prokopowicz (3pm est).  No doubt we will talk a great deal about my Crater book.  I will post a link to interview once it is available on their website.

Eugene Genovese, 1930 – 2012

Like many of you I was sad to hear of the passing of historian Eugene Genovese earlier today.  I was never formally introduced to the historiography of slavery in graduate school; rather, I relied on various friends and other contacts to point me in the direction of important studies as my interests both widened and deepened.  Genovese’s name continued to appear and it was just a matter of time before I read Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.  It took me a long time to read it and even longer to begin to understand it.  I find myself continually going back to it to review sections and even individual sentences.

More recently, I’ve been reading and contemplating his most recent book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which explores the intellectual world of slaveholders during the antebellum period and through the war.  The book briefly explores the slave enlistment debate and Genovese even offers a few thoughts specifically about camp servants, which is my current research topic.  The following sentence is one that I’ve been struggling with for weeks.  It beautifully captures the complexity of the slave – master relationship in the midst of war.

Body servants may have had as strong a desire for freedom as other slaves, but their fidelity to particular masters cannot be gainsaid. (p. 141)

Genovese forces us to acknowledge that freedom and fidelity were not mutually exclusive desires among this particular group of slaves.  Both the modern day Lost Cause apologists and those who would deny any feelings of loyalty harbored by slaves cling to a one-dimensional view.  The interesting question for me is how camp servant and master negotiated the dangers of camp life, march, and battle and how that resulted in a certain set of expectations between the two and a great deal of disappointment specifically for the slavemaster as the war progressed.

He will be missed.

Alabama’s Civil War Memory

Selma, Alabama (1965)

I guess we should have seen this coming from a mile away.  In the wake of heated protests from their loyal fans Lynyrd Skynyrd has decided that they will fly the Confederate flag at their concerts.  And just in case you still question their commitment to the flag’s history and meaning rest assured:

Myself, the past members and the present members (that are from the South), are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the South. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights.” — Gary Rossington

I guess a southern man does need him around…at least to buy those records.

In other news, the Selma City Council has voted to halt the construction of a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest until it can be determined who owns the land on which it is to be placed.

And so it goes.