The American Civil War: Legacies For Our Own Time

To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation, the Gilder Lehrman Center’s 2012 David Brion Davis Lectures on the History of Slavery, Race, and Their Legacies features a roundtable discussion with five major historians and writers, moderated by GLC Director, David W. Blight. The group takes up questions of the changing character and controversies over the memory of the Civil War and Emancipation over the past 150 years, as well as dwell on the place of the conflict’s legacies in our own time, nationally and internationally.

I thought Ta-Nahesi Coates stole the show.

 

Do You Trust Those Lost Causers?

Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865

I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs.  While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.

The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that  Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors.  “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.

It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact.  This is just another straw man argument.  That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences.  That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well.  I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.

In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful.  In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries.  That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.

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The World of Civil War Blogging Just Took a Giant Leap Forward

Union Veterans on Parade

At one point during my visit to Professor Blight’s Civil War Memory seminar at Yale I looked over at Brian Jordan and suggested that he should start a blog.  The next day I logged on for the first time to his new weblog, Grand Army Blog.  Now, I am not going to take full credit for this as it is likely that Brian had been playing around with this idea for quite some time.

So, why am I so excited about Brian’s blog?  First and foremost, Brian is a rising star in the field.  He has already published one book on South Mountain and historical memory as well as a number of journal articles.  I first met Brian last year at North Carolina State University, where the two of us served on a panel on public history and memory.  He is also an incredibly nice guy, but this is not why I am excited about Brian’s blog.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of young scholars who are discouraged from embracing the world of social media, including blogging.  I suspect that this can be explained, in part, by a certain level of anxiety from those individuals who feel alienated and left behind.  Others have expressed legitimate concerns about the value of such endeavors in an academic culture that continues to struggle assigning objective value for purposes of hiring and promotion. Thankfully, this attitude is beginning to change.

As far as I know, Brian’s is the first blog written by a current graduate student with a focus in Civil War history.  His dissertation is tentatively titled When Billy Came Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War and will address a number of questions related to the challenges that veterans faced in keeping the nation focused on their sacrifice and accomplishments.  Brian’s research has the potential to reach a very broad audience.  We are likely to get an insider’s account as Brian explores and analyzes archival collections, relevant secondary sources, and the more abstract considerations that come with conceptual analysis.  We need more of this.

If he keeps at it, Brian is likely to find that what at first glance appears to be a rather narrow/academic project will resonate among a very broad audience.  His readers will not only be introduced to new primary and secondary sources, but new questions and methods for interrogating the past.  Brian’s published work will be read and debated by academics and history enthusiasts alike.  Most importantly, a vibrant blog site that reaches out and welcomes readers from diverse backgrounds will transform what it means to educate.  I wish Brian all the best with his new digital project and I hope it encourages other young scholars in the field to matter more.

 

Scalawags and Stink Faces

The first videos from Appomattox are being posted on the YouTube page of the Virginia Flaggers.  In this short video members describe visitors and representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as “scalawags” and “stink faces.”  How very classy.  Apparently, the SCV’s General Executive Committee issued a resolution requesting that all members boycott participating in the opening ceremonies.  A few chose to participate.  What I don’t understand is why the SCV didn’t encourage more to attend: more units, more flags.  In fact, by the looks of it the MOC did nothing to prevent visitors from carrying Confederate flags on the grounds.

This protest reminds me of the situation in Lexington.  In both cases no one is being prevented from waving a Confederate flag.