Finding Meaning in Battlefield Minutiae

I have plenty to share about this past week’s CWI at Gettysburg College.  It was an honor to be asked to speak and I had a wonderful time meeting and talking with the participants.  Peter Carmichael has done a fabulous job as the institute’s new director and I look forward to returning in 2014 to help mark the events of 1864.  While there were many highlights that I hope to share over the course of the next few weeks the most rewarding experience of the conference was spending the day with John Hennessy on the Second Manassas battlefield.

I first met John in 2007 as I was working on the final chapter of my Crater manuscript, which addresses recent interpretive challenges on the Crater battlefield and elsewhere.  John was kind enough to meet me to talk about interpretation and since then we have remained good friends.  No one has taught me more about public history and I consider John to be something like a mentor. [Buy John’s book.]

Some of you know that while I enjoy visiting battlefields I am not preoccupied with tactical details.  I do not give much thought to the alignment of units or try to nail down exactly where they were. Give me an overall sense of what happened and I am good to go.  I’ve never given much thought to Second Manassas beyond the strategic level; in fact, this was my first time on that particular battlefield.

To watch John lead a tour is to watch a masterful storyteller, who has thought deeply about what the battlefield has to teach us.  He moved seamlessly between the strategic and tactical levels as well as the political implications of the campaign as it unfolded.  He even asked the group to reflect on questions related to memory.

We stopped at places like Brawner’s Farm, the unfinished railroad, and Chin Ridge and John went into great detail about the action that took place there.  John, however, didn’t simply describe the action that took place there and share first-hand accounts, he explained why doing so is important.  He suggested that we need to engage in a little imaginary discipline and understand that the ground under the soldiers feet at any given moment constituted the entirety of the battle.  This was a revelation to me.  I’ve always remained detached from this perspective since I was only interested in the larger picture, but for the first time I was able to see the battle as a collection of more localized encounters that were self contained for the men involved. How the broader battle might unfold is irrelevant from this perspective.  What matters is maintaining formation, holding ground, and looking after the man next to you.  The result was a personal connection to a battlefield that I have not experienced anywhere else.

Thanks, John.

It’s a Crater Book

Following an exhausting seven hour drive from Gettysburg I returned home to find my author copies waiting at the door.  I actually saw the book for the first time at CWI, where I was able to sign a number of copies for some of the participants and close friends.  It made the entire trip that much more enjoyable.  I have so many people to thank, which I do in the Acknowledgments section, but let me include one paragraph that is meant for all of you.

A good deal of the material contained in this book was first introduced on my Weblog, Civil War Memory, which I began in November 2005.  The site has given me the opportunity to test new ideas with a core group of loyal readers who bring a wealth of knowledge and perspective to my work.  Rarely did a day go by that I did not receive a blog comment or private e-mail that included sound criticism or pointed me in the direction of new sources.  My readers not only helped to further my understanding of the Crater, they enriched my understanding of some of the central issues surrounding how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War.  There are too many people to thank by name and the vast majority I have never met in person, but I hope they will embrace this book as a token of my gratitude.

The book should be officially released within the next ten days.  Thanks once again to all of you, who have traveled this road with me.  Now it is time to celebrate with the most important person in my life.

Gettysburg Bound

On Friday I am heading down to Gettysburg to take part in the Civil War Institute’s annual conference at Gettysburg College. Unfortunately, my move to Boston prevented me from taking part in last year’s institute so I am very excited about being able to attend this time around. The theme this year is “The Civil War in 1862” and it will explore, among other things, Civil War tactics in 1862, The war in the West, debating self-emancipation, and the 1862 campaigns of U.S. Grant. Here is the schedule for the panels and tours all of which look to be very interesting. I will be taking part in a panel with Brooks Simpson and Keith Harris on Civil War blogging on Sunday so that should be a lot of fun as well as a roundtable discussion on the final evening.  C-SPAN will be there, but whether they will film anything that I am involved with is still unclear.

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Sick From Freedom Makes for Strange Bedfellows

Jim Downs’s new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, is making somewhat of a splash in the mainstream media.  Articles have recently appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian Observer, and Daily Mail.  I am reading it now and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It tells an important story that not only adds to our understanding of the challenges and consequences of emancipation, but forces us to step back to evaluate how we as a nation remember the Civil War itself.

You might be surprised by the folks who are jumping on the Jim Downs bandwagon.  First, we have the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who reprinted the Daily Mail article in its entirety on their blog.  They no doubt see this book as supporting the timeless Lost Cause chant that slavery as a system was benign and that slaves would have been much better off in the long term under the care of their masters.  And then we have Thomas DiLorenzo at the Lew Rockwell blog, who uses the book to support his view of the Lincoln administration’s ultimate goal of genocide and expansionism on the Plains and imperialism overseas.  Finally, we have Richard Williams, who has built his blog around warnings concerning academics like Jim Downs.  He, apparently, also likes what he sees.

You will not find any kind of analysis of Downs’s actual argument on any of these sites.  In fact, I can guarantee you that neither DiLorenzo, Williams or anyone at the SCV will read it.  Why?  Because they are not interested in historical interpretation.  History is little more than competing narratives that must be attacked or defended.  What they are looking for is support/vindication of broader political assumptions and/or sacred narrative truths.

It’s just hard not to crack a smile when that vindication comes from the community that is regularly condemned by these same individuals.    With that, do yourself a favor and read the book.

The American Civil War Brought To You By Nascar

This is truly hilarious.

The American Civil War is unique in human history for being the only civil conflict that ended with reunion, respect and brotherhood.  The most bloody national conflict in world history is defined, ultimately, not by the conflict itself and that conflict’s destruction, but by the preservation of the values of all Americans.

The twin gifts of patriotic understanding and American freedom not only survived, but have thrived to make this nation a beacon of hope and peace the rest of the world admires to this day and will forever.  This production is honored to have developed a connection between this ultimate American sport with the ultimate American story and is proud to announce an association between select NASCAR™  affiliated drivers and roles that best exemplify this tradition of patriotism and competition in our production.

The connection between the Civil War and drivers who race NASCAR™ is simple: those values of the Civil War—the patriotism, the spirit of American competition, the regional and national pride that poured forth from and for its heroes—is best exemplified in the American Values and American Spirit embraced today by the NASCAR™ affiliated drivers and their fans.

One of the few times I am speechless.

Turning Likes and Followers Into Sales

A good friend of mine recently set up a Facebook page for her forthcoming book on the role of Christianity in shaping the concept of race in early Virginia.  She asked friends on Facebook as well as her Twitter followers to go ahead and “like” the page and within a couple of days had reached 100 fans.  Pretty good showing, but creating a Facebook page or Twitter account for a book is the easy part.  The challenge is in turning those social media connections or virtual clicks of support into sales.

Now I am certainly no Chris Brogan, but over the past few years I have learned a little bit about turning likes and follower into sales.  Of course, whether what I’ve learned actually pans out will be seen in the next few weeks.  Here are a couple of suggestions.

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What the SCV’s Defeat in Lexington Means

I suspect that the Confederate flag story out of Lexington will go viral by the end of the day.  No doubt, we will be treated to the standard mainstream media narrative of an unfinished Civil War as well as the overly defensive posture of the SCV.  Already we’ve heard from Brandon Dorsey, who is the local SCV commander in Lexington:

As far as I am concerned, this is little different that some states shutting down all their public schools to avoid desegregation and then claiming their motivation for closing them is of no concern because they screwed over everyone.

Oh brother.  Pass the hyperbole.  The SCV and other heritage groups have staked everything on the display of the Confederate flag.  It’s all or nothing.  Any attempt at limiting its visibility is seen as an attack on their history and heritage as if they alone have a monopoly on the Southern past.

The days when the Confederate flag represented a people, a culture, and a history are over.  Thankfully, we now live in a time when an ever wider spectrum of voices are able to make their voices heard and they are adamant that the flag ought not to be displayed on public property and/or supported with taxpayer dollars.  Why?  Because of its history and nothing the SCV or anyone else says or does can change the flag’s symbolic connection to a history of violence and racism.  I suspect that most reasonable people would agree that there are settings in which its display is appropriate and even necessary, but that is a discussion the SCV will not consider.

This has nothing to do with hating the South or “evilizing” the Confederacy.  That is as unimaginative an argument as one can make and as we have seen it will lead to the SCV’s continued marginalization in society.  The SCV’s decision to stake everything on the flag reflects a simplistic understanding of the very history and heritage that they claim to defend.  Instead of wasting limited resources on court cases, television ads, and airplane banners they should be thinking of creative ways to share the rich history of the Confederacy and their ancestors in their local communities.

When it comes to the Confederate flag the SCV is doomed to fail and they deserve everything they get.