Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.
I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject. Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation. [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.
So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.
On the one hand I agree with much of this. Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy. At best, they are echoes of the lost cause. I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.
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The other day one of my readers inquired as to whether I “only acquire books from university presses.” I’ve addressed this issue in the past, but it is worth spending a few minutes revisiting. It’s a fair question given that the overwhelming majority of Civil War titles that I list in these posts are from university presses. By extension, the same holds true for my Civil War library as a whole. That fact alone, however, won’t tell you much about my reading habits. I am going to tread lightly here given that some of us can get pretty defensive when it comes to our reading preferences and interests. While I love a good history narrative my primary interests in the area of Civil War studies are books that are analytically driven. Yes, I want it to be readable, but I also want to be engaged and challenged by a good argument. I prefer books that are heavy on theory and conceptual analysis and light on traditional narrative.
I gravitate toward historians who are going to add something significant to my understanding of the period or challenge what I already believe. In the area of military history I prefer a Glenn David Brasher or George Rable over a Stephen Sears. If I am going to read a biography I prefer something along the lines of Keith Dickson’s new book about Douglas Southall Freeman. Yes, most of these folks have gone through graduate programs in history and tend to teach in a college or university. No, you don’t necessarily have to have proceed in such a fashion, but for those who do the result is an understanding of a subject and possession of a skill that is unlikely to occur elsewhere. This is not meant as a slight to anyone in particular or to anyone’s preferences. I happen to love the work of Sears. In the end, it comes down to what one is hoping to learn from the inquiry itself. I’ve been reading Civil War studies long enough to have a pretty good grasp of the historiography and my interests tend to revolve around certain questions that I find intriguing and that have shaped the field over time. When something new comes out I can evaluate it based on the quality of the interpretation as well as where it fits into the broader field. Quite often a well argued book shows me something important beyond the Civil War period and even beyond the study of history itself.
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I spent part of today organizing some digital files related to the battle of the Crater. Included is the following letter written by H.A. Minor to his sister just after the battle. I can’t remember if it made it into the book because I have so many rich letters written by soldiers in William Mahone’s division. For anyone familiar with these post-battle letters, what stands out are the patterns that emerge between the many soldiers who took pen to paper to share the highlights of the battle with loved ones back home. I detail this in the first chapter of the book, but here is a little taste.
Papers of Henry Augustine Minor [manuscript] 1864-76
Minor, Henry Augustine, 1835-
Personal Author: Minor, Henry Augustine, 1835-
Title:Papers of Henry Augustine Minor [manuscript] 1864-76.
Collection: Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864
H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Minor was the surgeon of the 9th Alabama Volunteers. Collection
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Here is a list of recent acquisitions, including a few titles that I picked up while in Milwaukee for the annual meeting of the OAH. I probably should refrain from accumulating more books at least through the middle of the summer. More on this later.
Mark H. Dunkelman, Marching With Sherman: Through Georgia and the Carolinas With the 154th New York, (LSU Press, 2012).
Allen C. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Christian McWhirter, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
Megan Kate Nelson, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2012).
Mark J. Stegmaier ed., Henry Adams in the Secession Crisis: Dispatches to the Boston Daily Advertiser, December 1860-march 1861 (LSU Press, 2012).
Yael A. Sternhell, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South (Harvard University Press, 2012).
Brian Steel Wills, George Henry Thomas: As True As Steel (University of Kansas Press, 2012).
I think you are going to find this to be quite entertaining and perhaps even appropriate for some of your classrooms depending on how you choose to use it. Unfortunately, I was only able to embed a preview, but you can watch the full video here, which also includes the lyrics.