Do We Need Another Biography of Custer?

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My latest essay at The Daily Beast is a review of T.J. Stiles’s new book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed his other two biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In all three biographies Stiles explores the challenges each individual faced adjusting to some of the most dramatic changes that took place in this country during the mid-nineteenth century. I am not sure that this framework helps to explain Custer as opposed to his previous two subjects, but it is a solid effort. Books about Custer is a cottage industry and I have no doubt that some historians will nitpick a few oversights, but I didn’t see anything that threatens Stiles’s overall interpretation. It’s a fast read and well worth your time.

This is my third essay at The Daily Beast. I really enjoyed the exposure I gained writing for the Atlantic, but editorial changes have made it more difficult to publish. The editors have welcomed all of my suggestions thus far and two more essays are planned, one on the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as a review of PBS’s new series, “Mercy Street.” I hope at some point soon to expand my focus beyond the Civil War. One of the nice things about writing for TDB is that I don’t have to deal with comments that quickly spiral off the deep end, not to mention the fact that writing for TDB is a paying gig. 🙂

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It Was Ten Years Ago Today

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Ten years ago today I wrote my first blog post. Below is a screenshot of what the site looked like during that first week. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I explored the page. At first glance it looks so incredibly flimsy and bare, but that is only in light of what has changed over the last decade. What you see remains the core of the site. For much of its life I thought of Civil War Memory as a blog, but I now think of it as a website that contains a blog. This is, in part, a function of how blogging platforms like WordPress have evolved over the years, but it has much more to do with the way in which blogging has transformed my life as an educator and historian.

Screenshot of Civil War Memory (November 2005)

In 2005 there were just a few of us blogging the Civil War as you can see in the screenshot’s blogroll. Ten years later there isn’t enough time in the day to read them all. Many of them are incredibly thoughtful. It’s especially encouraging to see so many students at the undergraduate and graduate levels sharing their research on blogs. The debate over the place of social media in education and the historical profession has thankfully subsided. If I contributed even a tiny bit to its spread as a platform for historians and students of history than my time here was worth it. [click to continue…]

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A Quick Word About Historiography and Popular History

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I am charging through T.J. Stiles’s new biography of George Armstrong Custer, which I agreed to review for The Daily Beast. I’ve read his previous biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt and enjoyed both immensely. It’s always challenging to read a popular Civil War title and those of us immersed in the field know why. We can’t help but judge the author’s grasp of historiography. It’s already happening with Stile’s Custer biography.

I’ve heard from a number of people who are frustrated by the author’s interpretation of George McClellan. Stiles relies very heavily on Stephen Sears’s book on the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam and his biography of McClellan. He also utilizes Richard Slotkin’s recent book on Antietam, which received very mixed reviews. To be fair, Stiles’s grasp of the relevant literature is broader if you take the time to peruse the endnotes, but his understanding of McClellan is certainly weighed down by Sears and Slotkin. [click to continue…]

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New to the Civil War Memory Library, 11/03

Stiles CusterDavid T. Dixon, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey (B-List History, 2015).

Mark Dunkelman, Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General, and Gilded Age Politician (Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle, A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity (Basic, 2015).

Noeleen McIlvenna, The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown, 2015).

T.J. Stiles, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Knopf, 2015).

Zoe Trodd and John Stauffer, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (Liveright, 2015).

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Did White Northerners Abandon Reconstruction?

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Update: After you finish reading this post check out Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to Gordon-Reed’s essay.

One of the most common tropes embraced in reference to the post- Civil War period is the idea of a ‘white Northern retreat from Reconstruction.’  For many, the shift occurred during the mid to late 1870s for a number of reasons, including the threat of labor strikes, the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny or the realization that the South’s racial problems could only be solved locally. Reconstruction’s abandonment followed significant gains on the civil rights front from the passage of three constitutional amendments to military intervention that led to black political action. The white North’s abandonment of Reconstruction points inextricably to missed opportunities and our own inability to deal honestly with deep racial problems. [click to continue…]

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