‘The Best Servant By Far’

My latest column at The New York Times’s Disunion page is now available.  The essay briefly explores the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his body servant, Spencer.  The Winsmith letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy and offer an incredibly rich account of the war from a Confederate officer in the slaveholding class.  I still plan at some point to publish the letters and/or write a biography of Winsmith.

This is my third column for the Disunion page.  The first explored the challenges of using the Internet to do history and the second examined how I use battlefields to teach Civil War history.  Hope you enjoy it.

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Essential Lincoln Reading

I’ve already received a few emails asking for recommendations on books about Abraham Lincoln.  Since I anticipate more of these requests after tomorrow, I thought it might be a good idea to put together a short list of Lincoln books.  My recommendations are for those of you who walk out of the theater in the next few weeks and want to learn something more about our 16th president, but are not interested in a dry scholarly study.  It’s a good thing that Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, is being released not so much after the election, but after the Lincoln bicentennial as the offerings are broad and deep.

The best overall biography of Lincoln remains David H. Donald’s Lincoln.  You can find it at most bookstores as well as most decent used books shops.  Though not a traditional biography, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is the best broad study of Lincoln and the evolution of his views on race and slavery.  If you are looking for something that you can read in short bursts that debunks many of the long-standing myths about Lincoln, I suggest Gerald Prokopowicz’s Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln.  Finally, since the movie is loosely based on her book you may want to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

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Four More Years!

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Vote!

At the risk of sounding corny I do have to say that there is something magical about taking part in a national election.  Today was my first time voting in my new home of Boston.  The scene may have been unfamiliar and the method for casting my ballot was certainly different, but there was nothing foreign about waiting in line and making small talk with others in my community.  I am as tired as the rest of you from the unending stream of commercials and phone calls, but the act of voting instantly washes all of it away.

Another feeling came over me this morning as well.  For the first time I was just a bit concerned that my name might not appear on the voter’s roll since I am new to the area.  I even imagined being turned away.  It doesn’t take much to reinforce just how important it is both as an abstract political right and as a personal value and obligation.  Finally, it reminded me of the sacrifices that so many Americans have had to take to secure this right for themselves.  In other words, get out there and vote!

p.s. Make sure you thank a poll worker for volunteering to make it all possible.

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Mark Grimsley’s Twinkie

This weekend C-SPAN aired what I think is the final session from the 2012 Civil War Institute that took place this past June.  I skipped this session for a chance to run around the battlefield with Keith Harris.  What I missed was an entertaining and informative panel on Mark Grimsley’s landmark study, The Hard Hand of War, which was the official book of the conference.  Arguably, the highlight of the panel was Megan Kate Nelson’s characterization of the book’s continued popularity as on par with the half-life of a Twinkie.  She’s right.

The Hard Hand of War was one of the first Civil War books that I read roughly fifteen years ago.  Although it is not a memory study per se, it does force readers to step back and assess assumptions about the nature and scope of violence that took place in places like Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864-65.  I agree with the panelists who point to the book’s emphasis on understanding Sherman’s March (and broader Union policy) within a broader historical context that extends back to the Middle Ages as well as the ways in which Union soldiers embraced restraint during these final campaigns as constituting its strength.

Even though the book is not light reading I always managed to include a short excerpt for my students in my Civil War elective.  I could always count on having a fruitful discussion.  Those Twinkies are looking real good right now.

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