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Welcome to Forrest – Wells Park

There are a number of plans on the table that would change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  Any plan that involves removing the Forrest monument would also have to include the removal of his remains which are buried below.  That presents all kinds of challenges.  As I’ve said before, I am not a fan of tearing monuments down, though I do believe there are always exceptions to the rule.  In this case I think a name change is certainly justified, but rather than discard Forrest’s name I would like to see Ida B. Wells’s name added.  Welcome to Forrest – Wells Park.  It has a nice ring to it.  The Memphis City Council meets today to consider a proposal to do just that.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime…

What is it about pastors and Confederate generals, especially someone like Forrest? Of all the historical figures to utilize as representative of living a good life, is Forrest really the best we can do? I certainly know enough to explain this, but I will never understand it.

The View From Virginia in 1861

fort-sumter-fireI am putting the finishing touches on my Crisis at Fort Sumter simulation, which my students will work on throughout this week and present next Tuesday.  Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions on primary and secondary sources.  One of the documents that I am including comes from William Freehling and Craig Simpson’s edited collection of speeches from the Virginia State Convention that met in early 1861 to discuss the secession crisis.  I want my class to reflect on the importance of maintaining Virginia in the Union along with the rest of the Upper South.  On April 4 the Virginia convention voted 88 – 45 to remain in the Union.

Included in their documents is an excerpt from a speech given by Representative Chapman Stuart of  Augusta County Tyler and Doddridge counties on April 5.  What I like about this document is that it first reminds us that slavery was central to the concerns of this group.  Most convention members would certainly have disagreed with folks today who deny the centrality of slavery in the deliberations of Virginians in the wake of Lincoln’s election and inauguration and in contrast with those states that viewed the Republican Party as an immediate threat.  What they miss is the fact that many conditional and unconditional Unionists believed that the institution of slavery was safer in the Union.

Chapman owned no slaves and yet he puts forth a vigorous defense of the institution and a commitment to working with colleagues from the Tidewater who owned the majority of Virginia’s slaves.  I hope my students are able to use this document to reinforce a line of argument that cautions Lincoln not to threaten the loyalty of those who up to this point have prevented Virginia from seceding.  Stuart references the strong desire of his constituents, who hope to maintain ties with the North.  Of course, that could easily be challenged depending on how the situation develops in Charleston and the types of choices white Southerners are forced to confront as a result.

A Glimpse Into Camp Life

This morning I noticed the following photograph in my Facebook feed.  It’s an incredible image of Union soldiers parading through their camp.  The photograph and some cropped close-up shots can be found here, but the original is located on the Library of Congress’s website.  It reveals quite a bit of detail about the layout of the camp itself.

parade-through-camp-1863

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wide view of a Civil War camp, but it does conform pretty well to army regulations.  Below is a diagram of a camp that was done by a historian friend of mine after a few drinks this past summer at the Civil War Institute.  Yes, now you know what Civil War historians do after throwing back a few. :-)

Parade Through Camp

Benefits of Southern Slavery

David Barton and Glenn may be able to continue broadcasting their silly and misinformed shows about American history, but at least we can be guaranteed of a certain number of critical reviews that expose their shortcomings.  Barton’s most recent book about Thomas Jefferson was pulled from store shelves after serious problems with his research methods were revealed.  Hopefully, the weight of commentary has helped to steer a few people away from purchasing their products or thinking of them in any way as educators.

As an educator, however, I worry much more about people like Dan Horn and his new series of videos, titled “Causes of the Civil War” which he sells through a website called Discerning History.  Horn is “is a writer, tour guide, computer programer and pastor based in North Carolina. He is an elder at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and has written several books on theology.”  He has no credentials in the field of history or history education.  Here is what that gets you.

Like many of you who are in the classroom I spend a good deal of time trying to find ways to impart the complexity of slavery and the master-slave relationship to my high school students.  Mr. Horn’s understanding of the subject is not only seriously flawed, it’s dangerous.  From what I can tell his understanding of the history of slavery is based on books written entirely before 1940.  His website looks somewhat professional and the videos themselves will easily seduce those who do not know any better.  This is just another reason why the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse.

It should go without saying that a site such as this without any institutional affiliation and hosted by an individual with no formal training in the field should not be utilized as an educational resource.

Poor Bill Taylor

confederate-breastworks-602x600A few days ago I offered a few speculative words about the names of deserters that litter the letters of Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 5th South Carolina Infantry.  One of the recurring names in the letters is that of Bill Taylor.  He lived in the Spartanburg area and so it seems reasonable to assume that Winsmith hoped that his family’s connections might be instrumental in forcing him back into the ranks.  It should be noted that Winsmith singled out Taylor as having performed bravely in early battles, but that history was largely irrelevant as Winsmith himself had very little sympathy with deserters.  He believed that the sacrifice of everyone in the army and on the home front was necessary if his “country” was to achieve independence.  Taylor eventually did return to the army in the summer of 1863 after being arrested for desertion.

It’s sometimes difficult not to get attached to the central characters in the narrative that Winsmith weaves through his letters.  You want to know how these people fair in the end.  I was somewhat relieved that Taylor’s name didn’t reappear in subsequent letters.  While Winsmith understandably had little patience with this man, it is hard not to sympathize with Taylor.  Recent studies of desertion suggest that a decision to leave the army did not necessarily imply cowardice, a loss of faith in the cause or an intention to abandon comrades who had shared hardships and sacrificed for one another.  Rather, soldiers were pulled in multiple directions and had to juggle multiple responsibilities as parents, husbands, and soldiers, which shifted over time depending on news from home and the front.  I tend to see Taylor from this perspective or at least I would like to.

Taylor does make on final appearance in Winsmith’s letters written from Petersburg in the summer of 1864.  On July 9, 1864 he wrote to his sister Janie:

I am sorry to write that Bill Taylor killed himself through and accident with his gun in the trenches yesterday.  He was working with his gun when it fired off, tearing the top of his head away.

And on July 16 he shared the news with his mother:

I stated in my letter to Janie how Bill Taylor came to his death: It happened on the 8th inst.  He was doing something with his gun, when it went off accidentally, tearing away the top of his head.  It was a horrible death.  He was buried near by and his grave marked.  Bill had been doing his duty pretty well, and I regret his death.  He had $25 in his pocket book – $68 in Confederate bills and $10 on the Bank of Knoxville, which last is not current.  I can send the money to his wife, or Father can pay her $65 for me, whichever he thinks best.

I don’t mind admitting that I slumped back in my seat after reading this.  It’s in these moments that the human cost and tragedy of war hits home for me.  Poor Bill Taylor.