Talking Lincoln in Civil War History

civil war historyToday I arrived home to find the new issue of Civil War History (September 2013). This most recent issue includes a roundtable discussion that I participated in about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Participants included Catherine Clinton, Allen Guelzo John Neff, Megan Kate Nelson, and Matthew Pinsker. We discussed a range of issues from how well the movie stacks up to recent scholarship to how it might be used in the classroom. Thanks to book-review editor, Brian Craig Miller for inviting me to participate. This is my first time appearing in the pages of CWH apart from a couple of book reviews I wrote a few years ago. It’s a huge honor for me to be included among such a stellar group of scholars.

The last roundtable was eventually made available for free online and I suspect this one will eventually be be posted as well. Of course, I will pass it along at that point.

Postscript: Welcome historian Timothy Orr to the blogosphere. Tim is a dynamite historian, who teaches at Old Dominion University. You can find his blog at Tales From the Army of the Potomac.

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Envisioning Black Soldiers, Not Black Citizens

General Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves is often highlighted as an enlightened vision of racial progress in the Confederacy, which proves that slavery was incidental to the formation and maintenance of the Confederate nation. As David T. Gleeson explains in his new book, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), it’s a bit more complicated.

Cleburne may have been naive about the possibility of emancipation, but not in the importance of slave labor to the Confederacy. Cleburne’s vision was for black soldiers, not black citizens in the Confederacy. On the contrary, their “emancipation” was to be a limited one. While family relationships would be legalized, “wise legislation” would be needed to “compel [former slaves]. . . to labor for a living.” Somewhat ironically, Cleburne drew on the Irish experience he had fled from, concluding in one letter that “writing a man ‘free’ does not make him so, as the history of the Irish laborer shows.” Cleburne understood clearly then that the subordination of blacks would be a key element of the independent Confederacy that he continued to fight for with such gusto. Through his proposal, he believed that “we can control the negroes. . . and they will still be our laborers as much as they now are; and, to all intents and purposes will be our servants, at less cost than now.” To let the North win and the Confederacy be destroyed would, instead, lead to the dreaded racial “equality and amalgamation.” (p. 96)

That’s a pretty straightforward explanation of Cleburne’s proposal, but it got me thinking.

Just how different was the plan to enlist black soldiers in the United States army? Of course the crucial distinction is that freedom in the North was guaranteed by 1865 for all African Americans while Cleburne’s proposal called for a very limited emancipation. However, while African Americans clearly viewed military service as a stepping stone toward increased civil rights, it was certainly far from the majority view in the United States. Certainly, many white Northerners entertained some of the apocalyptic visions of their Southern neighbors regarding the political and social consequences of emancipation. There was nothing inevitable about the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and we know the sad story of their enforcement throughout much of the country by the end of the nineteenth century.

Just as Cleburne hoped that the Confederacy would be able to maintain a strict racial hierarchy indefinitely even through the disruption caused by military service, it could be argued that much of the history of this country during the postwar period, in part, was a struggle to come to terms with the tension between emancipation/military service and a very deep commitment to white supremacy. Just a thought.

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Seth Godin and Tom Peters on Blogging

I came across this short video yesterday of Seth Godin and Tom Peters expounding on the virtues of blogging. It perfectly sums up why I continue to find it to be such a powerful medium and I couldn’t agree more with Tom Peters’s summation of how it has changed his life. This November will mark my eighth year as a blogger and I am not in the least bit tired. The decision to start a blog back in 2005 was the single best career move I’ve ever made.

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Ha Jin, “The Past”

The new school year is right around the corner. Today we started our first history department meeting with the poetry of Ha Jin, which beautifully reflects how we shape and are shaped by the past.

I have supposed my past is a part of myself
As my shadow appears whenever I’m in the sun
the past cannot be thrown off and its weight
must be borne, or I will become another man.

But I saw someone wall in his past into a garden
whose produce is always in fashion.
If you enter his property without permission
he will welcome you with a watchdog or a gun

I saw someone set up his past as a harbor.
Wherever it sails, his boat is safe–
if a storm comes, he can always head for home.
His voyage is the adventure of a kite.

I saw someone drop his past like trash.
He buried it and shed it altogether.
He has shown me that without the past
one can also move ahead and get somewhere.

Like a shroud my past surrounds me,
but I will cut it and stitch it,
to make good shoes with it,
shoes that fit my feet.

I am definitely going to use this on the first day of classes. All the best to those of you anticipating a return to the classroom.

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Reza Aslan and the Search for the Historical Jesus (…and Robert E. Lee)

lee-jackson-in-prayerIt should come as no surprise that following FOX News’s debacle of an interview with Reza Aslan his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, shot up to No. 1 at Amazon. I decided to pick it up as well and finished reading it yesterday. It’s beautifully written and provides an excellent introduction to the subject. As a graduate student in philosophy, with a concentration in philosophy of history, I studied the debate over the Synoptic Gospels as a case study of how historians formulate and revise their interpretations. That was a long time ago so reading Aslan’s Zealot felt fresh.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but be reminded of the extent to which the controversy surrounding Aslan’s book (or any attempt to critically explore the historical Jesus) reflects some of the same dynamics in our Civil War community. The FOX interview itself represented the worst in the virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that ignores any attempt to engage in serious critical thinking in favor of discrediting the author. We see this quite often when the scholarship of academic historians who write Civil War history is dismissed based on assumptions about their politics, regional affiliation, etc. rather than engaging the argument itself. Many view academic scholarship as a threat to stories that have been accepted without question. [click to continue…]

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The Virginia Flaggers Have Overreached

Virginia Flaggers

Virginia Flagger founder, Susan Hathaway, defending Confederate heritage.

Update: Andy Hall is now weighing in on the Virginia Flaggers desperate bid for attention.

The I-95 project isn’t over-reach, but quite the opposite — it’s grabbing the low-hanging fruit. It’s confirmation that, for all their efforts to promote themselves as being in the vanguard of “restoring the honor” of Confederate veterans, the Virginia Flaggers are no more innovative or successful than a half-dozen SCV camps that have completed (or are working on) similar highway flag projects, from Florida to Texas. The I-95 project doesn’t challenge any institutional or powerful interests. It doesn’t require a successful challenge to authority or overturning any rule or regulation or city ordinance, and doesn’t require winning widespread public support. There are no great legal, administrative or public opinion obstacles to be overcome if your goal is limited to putting up a big-ass flag on private property — even in Lexington. The I-95 project just requires a relatively small amount of money and some willing supporters, both of which are easily obtained. It’s an easy and highly-visible accomplishment that, among the Flaggers’ supporters, will divert attention away from the resources invested in two high-profile disputes that have consumed thousands of volunteer hours and dollars, and have precious little to show for it – nor are ever likely to.

Yep. That pretty much says it all.

Brooks Simpson is spot on with his analysis of the decision on the part of the Virginia Flaggers to raise a large Confederate flag on I-95 and its likely consequences. This point, however, deserves a bit more attention.

Moreover, for all of the Flaggers’ talk about heritage, their choice of symbol and location leaves much to be desired, precisely because the flag is presented without context. Sure, Confederate heritage folks will see it as honoring the heritage they say so much about (although at times they are painfully vague about defining that heritage). However, other people will see it in different terms, and it will not help when some Flaggers make comments that define heritage in ways that others may find offensive.

This protest began over the removal by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts of the Confederate flag from the Soldiers’ Home chapel in Richmond roughly three years ago. Let’s ignore for now whether the museum was justified in changing the terms of the lease that allowed a local SCV chapter to continue to utilize the building, but without the display of the Confederate flag. From the beginning I’ve stated that a good case can be made for some kind of display of the Confederate flag. After all, the ground and building were utilized by Confederate veterans and the flag remained an important symbol of the Lost Cause. Any flag display could easily be historically contextualized. Of course, that might involve working with museum officials to come up with some kind of compromise, but from the beginning the Flaggers have chosen to parade in front of the VMFA, stage conflicts with security and cry that their heritage is being attacked. [click to continue…]

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