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Stirring Up Civil War Memory on Memorial Day Weekend

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore
Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

This editorial by Jamie Malanowski, which appeared today in the New York Times, reminds me of Edward Sebesta’s petition to have President Obama end the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  In the end it stirs up emotions, but fails to produce anything constructive.  Malanowski’s contribution to our collective conscience this Memorial Day weekend is to remind the public that 10 military bases located around the country are named after Confederate generals.  And you guessed it, those names need to be changed.

Malanowski begins with the questionable assumption that the “humble idea” of decorating graves “quickly spread throughout the country, and the recognition of common loss helped reconcile North and South.” It didn’t. Decoration Days were incredibly divisive throughout the period between the 1860s and the early twentieth century. Recent studies by Caroline Janney, William Blair, and John Neff suggest why this was the case.

It’s not that I am against changing the names of public places, but in most cases the push is local.  For example, consider the recent controversy in Memphis, Tennessee surrounding the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. These are questions that need to be resolved by the members of the community. Continue reading “Stirring Up Civil War Memory on Memorial Day Weekend”

A Nation Remembers in Song During the Centennial

Bonus Material: Contrast this with Lyndon Johnson’s 1963 Memorial Day Address at Gettysburg. I have never heard of this before today. Check it out.

This is a fabulous film from 1963 of the U.S. Army Band and Chorus commemorating the Civil War Centennial.  The narrator makes it clear at the beginning that the “Union found itself split in two over the issue of states rights.”  There is not one mention of slavery or black Union soldiers exactly one hundred years later. Songs include “Down By The Riverside”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “We are Coming Father Abra’am”, “Lorena”, “Tenting On The Old Camp Ground”, “The Battle” (new music & spoken word piece), “In the Sweet By-and-By / The Army Bean”, “Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Bonnie Blue Flag”,”Home! Sweet Home!”, “Dixie” & “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

Earl Hess Reviews My Crater Book

crater lovellThe academic journal reviews of Remembering the Battle of the Crater are just beginning to appear. Overall the reviews have been very positive.  It’s encouraging to know that historians, who you respect, believe that the time it took to research and write was time well spent and that it constitutes a worthy addition to the broader historiography.  I was surprised that the book review editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era asked Earl Hess to review my book given that he contributed a blurb for the back cover.  Either way, it doesn’t get any better than receiving Hess’s stamp of approval in this particular journal.  I am thrilled with his review. 

There are definitely some things I would do different if I had it to do over again.  For one thing I would have done a better job of emphasizing the extent to which the 1903 and 1937 reenactments reflected the limits of sectional reconciliation. This would have situated the book more comfortably within a growing body of scholarship on Civil War memory.

The Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2013): 290-92

The Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, as part of the third Union offensive during the Petersburg campaign, has drawn a good deal of attention in the past few years. Several books have been published dealing with the military history of the event, which now seems well covered in the secondary literature. Kevin M. Levin, however, has written a study not of the battle itself but of how it has been remembered over the past 150 years, with a special emphasis on the controversial fact that a division of black troops participated in the attack that followed detonation of the mine that created the famous crater. Many of those troops were slaughtered in the counterattack that restored Robert E. Lee’s line outside the city, shot down in cold blood by enraged Confederate soldiers. Continue reading “Earl Hess Reviews My Crater Book”

Is The History of Gettysburg More Than a Collection of Facts?

9780448465753_p0_v1_s260x420It’s been interesting following some of the early reactions to Allen Guelzo’s new book from within that small, but devoted community of Gettysburg buffs on various social media channels.  I am not an expert on the battle. I’ve read a bit and only in the last year or so have I been able to find my way around on the field with little difficulty.  If I am lucky enough to be on the field with an expert I give them my full attention and trust

I am about half way through and I am thoroughly enjoying the book.  That said, for a book this size I have no doubt that there are factual mistakes.  How can there not be.  The battle is a major event that has been poured over by historians. There are people who have devoted years of study to the battle as a whole and/or to various moments during the battle.

As a result it should come as no surprise that this book will be picked apart tooth and nail, by folks whose understanding of specific aspects of the battle outstrip Guelzo’s. I am not suggesting that it should not be.  Who is going to deny that getting the facts right is important? The author may, indeed, have mistakenly placed Two Taverns on the Taneytown Road or referenced Jubal Early as commanding three brigades instead of four.  Like I said, there are factual mistakes in just about every history book.

What I am wondering about, however, is whether the release of a new book on the battle of Gettysburg is simply another opportunity to run through a checklist of facts and accepted profiles of the standard list of characters.  Is there room for interpretation in a battle where there is so much emphasis placed on such excruciating factual minutiae?  Is the history of Gettysburg more than a collection of facts?

The Civil War’s Untold Story

It’s the name of a 5-part documentary that will air on PBS in February 2014.  The preview looks pretty good, though it’s not clear to me exactly what is new or “untold”.  The commentary by historians is certainly within the mainstream of current interpretation, but perhaps parts of it will be new to the general public.  One thing that I really like is Allen Guelzo’s constant reinforcement of the importance of democracy and republican government as what was at stake.  The scene of impressed slaves working on Confederate earthworks looks very promising for the obvious reasons. No hint of Lost Cause rhetoric, which is very nice to see.