Boston’s Civil War Memory or Lost Cause

Abolitionists

The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War.  What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community.  That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory.  I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.

By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War.  In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction.  It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders.  There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War>, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights.  The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal.  In short, it was all or nothing. [click to continue…]

Common-place Marks Civil War Sesquicentennial

Megan Kate Nelson, Kevin LevinIn between the final day’s sessions yesterday at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Megan Kate Nelson and I met over lunch and cocktails to talk a little business.  Over the next few months we will be co-editing a special issue of Common-place on the Civil War Sesquicentennial and Civil War memory.  The issue is slated for publication in early 2014.  As it stands our approach will be regional with a particular focus on what is currently happening on the ground at various sites, which is broadly construed.  We are trying to cast as wide a net as possible with as many different voices and perspectives as possible.  The nice thing about working with Common-place is that we have a great deal of flexibility both in terms of the number of essays we commission and their length. [click to continue…]

Three Days of Talks and Not a Shot Fired

This weekend I am attending a conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society called “Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion.”  Last night John Stauffer gave the keynote address on abolitionism in the Bay State and today I attended three panels.  The range of topics discussed is really quite impressive.  I especially enjoyed Jim Downs’s discussion of the health challenges faced by newly freed slaves during the war as well as his thoughts about how all of this challenges our triumphalist narrative of the Civil War.  I also enjoyed Katy Meir’s analysis of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and Megan Kate Nelson’s paper on soldiers as tourists.  [Stay tuned for an announcement regarding a project that Megan and I will begin working on together in the very near future.]

Tomorrow we will finish up with three more panels, including two that include papers on historical memory by Barbara Gannon and Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai.  What is striking, however, is that this conference does not include one paper on military history.  An outsider attending this conference would have little sense that this event included four years of horrific violence. There is little sense that the men from Massachusetts ever fired a shot in the Civil War.  Of course, I am not the first person to make this observation about the place of military history in academia, but it is quite striking nevertheless.  The closest we get to a Civil War general is George McClellan’s 1863 visit to Boston.  I certainly don’t mean in any way to diminish the quality of the presentations that I’ve heard over the past two days.  As I said, I’ve learned quite a bit and I suspect that we will see many of these papers published at some point.

Number of Black Confederates Will Increase in April

Fold3

How do I know this?  Fold3 is offering free access to all of its Confederate records during the month of April, which happens to be Confederate History Month.  Well, it’s CHM in the few places that still acknowledge it.  Check out the press release from the Georgia Division SCV.

So much is portrayed by Hollywood today that Georgia and the South were evil; when, in reality, the South was the most peaceful, rural, and Christian part of America before war and Reconstruction destroyed the pastoral way of life here. April gives us a chance to celebrate the positive things about our Southern heritage and culture, as well as a chance to learn from the political dangers that once led to a deep division in America over the role of the federal government in people’s individual lives.

yada…yada…yada.

I think it’s great that Fold3 is making it possible for ‘everyone t0 be his or her own historian.’ That said, I am also thankful that hospitals don’t invite the general public into their operating rooms to give surgery a try.  Now get in there and find me some black Confederate soldiers for my book.

Reality TV Show For Historians?

You heard that right.  It was just a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of basing a reality TV show around the eccentricities and annoying behavior of history buffs.  Here is the description for the casting call:

Are you a curious person, and obsessed with history? Can you recite facts inside and out, and name-drop (and even date-drop) with the best of them? Do your friends at trivia night, dare we say it, label you as the history buff? Maybe you’re not a full-blown “buff” but if you like history and get psyched at the idea of even visiting a museum, or actually read those placards on your tour, then we want to meet you…virtually for now though.

It goes without saying that Civil War enthusiasts occupy a unique place along the history buff spectrum.  For this show to have any chance of success they are going to need at least one and perhaps three participants from this quarter.  This morning I tweeted the announcement and John Hennessy quickly responded with a suggestion, which I am in complete agreement with:


John nailed it.  Brooks would be a formidable player.  So, who would you like to see represent our little community on this show?  Remember, this is all in good fun.

From Heroes to Survivors

Bull RunEarlier today I finished reading Michael J. Bennett’s essay “The Black Flag and Confederate Soldiers: Total War from the Bottom Up” which is also published in Andy Slap and Michael Smith eds., This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North.  In his essay, Bennett explores accounts of massacres throughout the war that function as a case study of how various factors shaped what Mark Neely calls the “limits of destruction.”   [click to continue…]