Speaking in Newburyport, MA on Wednesday Evening

For those of you who live in the greater Boston area and are looking to get out for a few hours tomorrow evening I would love to see you in Newburyport.  More specifically, in nearby Salisbury [East Parish United Methodist Church, 8 Lafayette Rd. (Rt. 1)].  I will be giving a talk to the Merrimac Civil War Round Table on the battle of the Crater.  My talk will focus specifically on how Confederates responded to the presence of United States Colored Troops on the battlefield and in the letters and diaries written in the immediate aftermath.  The meeting begins at 7:30pm.

I will have books on hand at a discounted price and will be happy to personalize a copy for you.  Hope to see you.  If you can’t make tomorrow evening’s presentation you can catch me on October 26 at the Civil War Round Table of Greater Boston in Waltham.

Earlier today my friend Keith Harris posted a review of my book at Cosmic America.  There is really no reason to read beyond the first two sentences:

Let’s get straight to the point here. Kevin Levin’s new book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder,  is an exceptionally solid work.

In all seriousness, I appreciate Keith taking the time to read my book.  He makes a couple of really important points about where my book fits into the broader field of Civil War memory studies, which I am going to respond to very soon.

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A Better Slavery Map

I didn’t realize that yesterday I stumbled on a relatively unknown map.  Hope it comes in handy for those of you in the classroom.  Brooks Simpson also posted the image on his site along with a very colorful explanation of the recent decline in Boston sports.  Thank you, Brooks.  One of the commenters on his site suggested that slavery in the North was insignificant.  I find it to be a widely-held view, especially with my students, who are likely offered a skewed view of slavery’s origin and growth at an earlier age.  My job is to correct it.

I find this map to be particularly helpful.  The first thing that students notice is that slavery was present in all of the thirteen original colonies.  Not only was slavery present in the North, it was expanding along with the South.  In 1680 New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania all contain a roughly equal number of slaves as North and South Carolina.  Of course, slavery expands in the South for a number of reasons having to do with the decline in indentured servants and demand for tobacco and other staple crops, but what is just as important is the rate of expansion in the North.  Twenty-Five years before the American Revolution there was no sign of decline in slavery in the North.  Speaking loosely, slavery was clearly a national institution.

There were, of course, important differences between the lives of slaves between these two regions as well as their place in society that must be noted.  I usually have my students read a short selection from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, in which he distinguishes between “a society with slaves” as opposed to a “slave society.” It’s an incredibly helpful analytical distinction and one that students easily grasp.

I’ve framed this year’s class around the essential question: What is American Freedom?  We are just getting started exploring the origins and evolution of slavery during the colonial period, but overall I’ve been asking them to reflect, based on their understanding of the concept, just how free people were during this time.  This map surely helps in that discussion.

Not quite sure where we should draw “God’s Curse” and “God’s Blessing” on this map.

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God’s Blessing Liberty, God’s Curse Slavery

I am spending the day putting together maps for an animated video that will cover westward expansion and slavery from the passage of the Northwest Ordinance through to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  Along the way I came across this wonderful map that was produced for Congress in 1888.   This is a wonderful example of selective memory in the post-Civil War period and a reminder that emancipation and the end of slavery constituted an important outcome of the war for many.  According to this map the eventual divide between North and South over slavery had its roots int he formation of both Massachusetts and Virginia.  The tree of slavery was planted at Jamestown in 1619; while the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620 planted a tree of liberty that would eventually stretch across the nation. The text at the bottom of the map explains the allegory and associates the Republican Party with the liberty tree. Here is a little taste.

In time a dispute arose between the two colonies as to whose tree should grow so large that it would occupy all the land.  Slavery with its attendant evils would overshadow the land with darkness, while Liberty with its manifold blessings would send a flood of light over the whole country.

 

At one time it appeared that the tree of Slavery would gain the supremacy, but God cursed that tree and it soon began to lean southward.  Its friends then tried to prop it up, but it still continued to lean and showed signs that it would fall.  This made the Southern man jealous and he decided to murder his Northern brother, as Cain of old had done his brother Abel.  For this sin God send a black mark upon Cain and sent Father Abraham with his big emancipation axe to cut the tree of Slavery down.

This would be an incredible classroom resource to introduce kids to issues of historical memory.  You can discuss the extent to which the map simplifies the history of slavery during the 250 year period leading up to the war.  Why was this map produced for the federal government and what did Republicans hope to do with it?  Why does the map not include any references to the existence of slavery in the north during the colonial era and right down through the early part of the nineteenth century?  How has this shaped and reinforced our own view of what the war was about and who we believe was right and wrong?

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Authority in Blogging

I enjoyed re-visiting the panel discussion on Civil War blogging from this summer’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.  A number of interesting issues were discussed including the question of whether Keith Harris, Brooks Simpson, and me occupy a position of authority in the blogosphere and whether that position comes with certain expectations about the kinds of issues discussed and who should be allowed to participate.

Peter Carmichael did a good job moderating this discussion and I appreciate his pushing this issue of authority, but his questions and comments point to the gulf between how the three of us see our blogging and an apparent lack of comfort with the range of subjects and voices that are embraced outside traditional channels.  We did our best to communicate our approach, but it is very difficult to do unless you’ve experienced the challenges and dynamics of blogging for yourself.

If I understand him, Pete seems to think that our respective credentials ought to translate into a privileged place in the blogosphere.  That is not an unreasonable assumption when looking at the blogosphere from the outside.  Professional historians operate under a certain set of rules related to publishing and advancement in the academy that are intended to maintain quality control.  I’ve experienced first hand the benefits of peer review as well as feedback on papers presented at academic conferences.  The point is that there are, at times, reasons to limit certain voices.  To be fair, Pete has spent a good deal of time thinking through the value of blogging for his students and for the history profession.  His organization of this panel is evidence enough of this. [click to continue…]

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Interview With The Civil War Monitor

Thanks to David Thomson for the opportunity to interview with The Civil War Monitor’s new series, Behind the Lines.  We talked mainly about my Crater book and toward the end I babble on a bit about blogging and social media.  If you are curious the book is doing very well.  Some of you are familiar with the standard academic press contract and I am now confident that within a few months I will make enough profit to take my wife out to a nice dinner.  You can still pick up the book at a 40% discount.  Just use the coupon code on the book page.  [The code will override the 20% discount that you will see on the publisher's book page.]

The book has received some favorable reviews.  Jim Cullen reviewed it for History News Network earlier this summer and I was especially pleased to see Caroline Janney’s positive review in The Civil War Monitor.  I first learned about William Mahone in a summer seminar for history teachers at the University of Virginia taught by Gary Gallagher and William Thomas. Carrie was one of the teaching assistants for the course.  I am very much looking forward to her forthcoming study of Civil War memory, which will be published next year as part of the University of North Carolina Press’s Littlefield Series.

A couple of shorter blog posts have appeared with mixed reviews.  Brendan Wolfe offered a thoughtful and critical assessment at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog on parts of the first chapter.  I offered some feedback, but have not seen anything on the rest of the book.  More curious is Tim Talbott’s review at Random Thoughts on History.  It seems I overlooked a Confederate account of the battle that even he can’t reference.  Again, most of the focus is on the first chapter.  In the end I appreciate that they took the time to read at least parts of the book.

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