Finding a Usable Past at Gettysburg

Pete Carmichael at Gettysburg

With all that is being written in newspapers across the country about the Gettysburg 150th most of the editorials have been just plain fluff. The battle is framed as a tragedy that pitted Americans v. Americans or as a crucial moment in the broader struggle for civil rights. Today the New York Times published a short editorial by Civil War Institute Director Peter Carmichael. For those of you who have heard Pete at various events in recent months there is very little that is new, but for those of you who haven’t this is well worth your time.

Tucked away on a hillside, hidden from visitors who descend upon Gettysburg every year, are the outlines of a Civil War burial trench. One of the thousands of Southerners scattered in shallow graves across the battlefield was North Carolinian Charles Futch, shot in the head while fighting next to his sibling John, who never left his dying brother’s side. After burying him in an anonymous grave, a semi-literate John poured out his tortured feelings in a letter home. “Charly got kild and he suffered [a] gratdeal,” he wrote, “[and] I don’t want nothing to eat hardly for I am . . . sick all the time and half crazy. I never wanted to come home so bad in my life.”

In the story of the Futch brothers are timeless questions about what it means to be a nation at war today. How soldiers cope with the trauma of combat, how poverty shapes the military experience, and how acts of mourning influence political loyalties are inquiries that make history engaging and relevant. Unfortunately, the 150th Commemoration of the Civil War has largely missed an opportunity to make the past usable. Too many historians have been afraid to ask hard questions, much of the public is seduced by the heroic view of war, and Congress has defunded the National Park Service (NPS). [click to continue…]

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Keep A Clear Eye!

For Chris Stowe.

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The Anatomy of a Dimitri Rotov Review

Dimitri hasn’t posted much in recent months, but yesterday he shared a review of Sam Hood’s new biography of John Bell Hood. I haven’t read the book nor do I plan on doing so. Let me be clear that this brief comment is not about the merits of Sam Hood’s new biography, but about Rotov’s evaluation of it. In that regard I have to say that I am deeply disappointed.  This is the same guy who over the years has gone to great lengths to knock down some of the most popular Civil War historians such as Gary Gallagher, Stephen Sears, James McPherson, and Joe Glatthaar and others that he has dubbed the “Centennial School.”  Rotov typically provides specific examples (even footnotes) from the texts he critiques and in the case of McPherson he even attempted to demonstrate instances of plagiarism. He is hard hitting and unapologetic.  That said, please don’t mistake this for a tacit agreement with his conclusions. I share this to highlight my disappointment with his most recent review.

Consider the following:

The demolition of Wiley Sword and his ilk is awe-inspiring and I hope it puts the fear of God into that great careless pack of out-of-control nonfiction writers who dominate best-seller lists. They will be held to account somewhere, sometime.

Speaking of which, I am partial to Sam Hood and this work for reasons obvious to those who have read me over time. In 1997, I began compiling and publishing examinations of the claims made against McClellan. My motivation was rage. Having binged on ACW pop history 1994-1997 after 30 years of reading good European history, I found ACW standards so primitive, so insulting, so outlandish as to require outrage.

I have been dwelling on the broader points here without adequately conveying how much excitement there is in author Hood’s specific takedowns of weak claims and garbage citations. I don’t know how Hood authors will be able to appear in public after this (but perhaps I underestimate the shamelessness of Civil War authors). If you enjoy the pointed historiographic criticism appearing occasionally in this blog, this book is for you. Here General Hood has been done a service as has ACW history.

At no point does Rotov offer any substantive critique of the book’s interpretation. No examples of how the author challenges prevailing thought are given. Nor does Rotov give us any indication of the picture of Hood that emerges as a result of this supposedly important new biography. Make no mistake, I don’t care whether he likes the book or not. What I find appalling is the blatant double-standard at work here. And what I find even more interesting is that this is almost always the case when it comes to books published by Savas Beatie.

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A Gettysburg 150 Reflection

Gettysburg

For those Americans with an inkling of interest in American history and the American Civil War this coming week’s 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg will mark the beginning and end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Agree? Disagree? Talk amongst yourselves.

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Remembering Gettysburg on the Senate Floor

Maine Senator Angus King, Jr. took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to remember Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s heroic stand on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. I think he has seen the movie, “Gettysburg” one too many times. You will get a kick out of his maps.

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Gettysburg 150th Is Not All Reunion and Reconciliation

VABattleFlag

Looks like the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg is not going to be defined completely by the powerful pull of reconciliation. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and others have requested that the state of Minnesota return the flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry which was captured on July 3. 1863 by a member of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. On July 2 the unit played a crucial role in stopping the Confederate assault against Cemetery Ridge. In the process it suffered an 80% casualty rate. On the following day the First Minnesota defended the Ridge against the Pickett-Pettigrew assault. It was during this final engagement that the Virginia flag was captured.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton had this to say in response to McDonnell’s request:

“The third day of Gettysburg, the 47 Minnesotans that survived the day before, rejoined the battle and that was the day that they captured the flag of the regiment of Virginia… which resides in the Minnesota Historical Society to this day,” Dayton said. “The governor of Virginia earlier this year requested that the flag be loaned, quote, unquote, to Virginia to commemorate — it doesn’t quite strike me as something they would want to commemorate, but we declined that invitation.”

“It was taken in a battle at the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans,” Dayton continued. “And I think it would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It was something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor men who gave their lives and risked their lived to obtain it. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a closed subject.”

What do you think? Does Virginia have a claim to this flag? There is a tradition of returning captured flags as symbols of reunion and reconciliation. I don’t have a strong opinion either way. The flag is currently on display at the Minnesota Historical Society and is being properly preserved. The governor clearly has strong feelings about the subject, but I see nothing wrong with loaning the flag to the Virginia Historical Society if it decided to once again request the flag temporarily for an exhibit.

I haven’t heard much from the Southern Heritage/Flagger types out there. They have problems with the Virginia governor owing to his recent shift on Confederate Heritage Month. Many have been outspoken about the interpretive slant of the VHS and they certainly don’t approve of the Museum of the Confederacy, which is best positioned to be able to preserve and properly interpret the flag.

Nope, I guess it’s best to leave it in the capable hands of the MHS. They have as solid a claim to it as anyone and it’s probably safer there.

Wish I had thought of this: “As a gesture of reconciliation by Minnesota, that might be nice, but as a symbol of Virginia’s reconciliation with its African-American citizens — and a large number of others such as General George Thomas & General Winfield Scott who did not commit treason in the name of states “rights” — maybe Virginia should say we don’t want that symbol of rebellion back.”

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