We are so close I can smell it. The other day I had a chance to review the content of the dust jacket, which included the blurbs below. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have these endorsements. I seem to remember at one point speculating as to whether blurbs were simply favors or at least based on some understanding of the content. Well, in this case I can state with confidence that all four read through the proofs or an earlier version of the book. I am so excited about the impending publication of this book that I wonder if actually holding it in my hands will be anti-climactic.
The only blurb we are still waiting on is from David Blight. No one has taught me more about the study of the Civil War and historical memory than Blight. While I hope my book builds on and even challenges some of the claims made in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, no other book that has had more of an impact on my understanding of this field of Civil War studies. Earl Hess has been a supporter of this project from the very beginning. Back in 2003 I spent part of my summer gathering archival sources related to the Petersburg Campaign for his book, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat as well as his more recent military study of the Crater. I was very pleased to see that my published work on the Crater made it into the final chapter of his book, which briefly explored the postwar themes connected to the Crater. While researching in Petersburg I spent a good deal of time talking with Chris Calkins, who was then chief of interpretation at the Petersburg National Battlefield. No one knows more about the battle and while I suspect that Chris disagrees with some of my interpretive points related to the recent history of the NPS at Petersburg I am thrilled to have his name on the book. Chris is now in charge of the new Sailor’s Creek battlefield, which I hope to visit at some point soon. Finally, it’s really nice to have Anne Marshall’s endorsement. Despite predictions to the contrary I would like to think that our books point to continued interest in the field of Civil War memory. If you have not done so I highly recommend reading her recent book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State.
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.
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.
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.
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