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If Slaves Had Guns

22th Regt. U.S. Colored TroopsSeriously, I am all for an honest debate about gun control and the Second Amendment, but this isn’t it.  There is something incredibly disturbing behind the assumption that Martin Luther King, who gave his life advocating for peace and non-violence, would support something called Gun Appreciation Day. What is even more ridiculous, however, is the claim made by Larry Ward that if blacks had guns than “perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.”

I am not sure if Mr. Ward understands that he just made an argument for the strictest gun control legislation possible.  Whites exercised a great amount of control – through legal and extra-legal means – to ensure that slaves were not able to arm themselves.  They did so because they believed that such a scenario constituted a direct threat to their communities.  It goes without saying that they were probably right about that. :-)

Someone should remind Mr. Ward that the slaves eventually did find a way to arm themselves, however, I sincerely doubt that he is looking to see such a scenario play out once again.

Editing the Winsmith Papers

photoMy recent work on camp servants has finally brought me back to the letters of John Christopher Winsmith, which I initially planned on editing for publication way back in 2006.  I came across this collection while researching the Crater book at the Museum of the Confederacy and was immediately struck by the content and the size of the collection. If I remember correctly, I spent the rest of the day reading about Winsmith.  John Coski suggested that I consider editing them for publication and a few weeks later I contacted him that I would take on the project.

Unfortunately, the Crater book and a few other things got in the way, but re-reading the letters has convinced me that now is the time to finish.  All 230 letters have been transcribed and I’ve started both editing and writing an introduction.  The letters are beautifully written and you simply cannot ask for more in terms of relevant content.  Winsmith writes detailed battlefield descriptions, but he also talks extensively about slavery, sacrifice, politics, and the challenges of command.

He falls squarely into what Pete Carmichael has dubbed “the last generation.”  Here are a few short passages.

The objections you have to going to Fla. will not apply to Va. besides I think it the duty of the whole South to make common cause against the hordes of abolitionists who are swarming Southwards. If they are successful against the border States, of course they will be upon us, and in order to prevent this we must annihilate them at the outset. (April 24, 1861)

I send you by this mail the last number of Frank Leslie which I hope may prove interesting. I got it this morning. The sketches are very good; but like most of Yankee things it is tainted with Lincolnism. (May 10, 1861)

Longstreet now planned and executed a dashing flank movement, moving forward his extreme right, and was driving the enemy in terrible confusion and with immense loss, when he was unfortunately wounded, though mistake, by a fire from a Virginia Regt.  Gen. Jenkins was killed by the same fire.  This occurred quite near our Brigade.  There was a pause and almost perfect stillness for a time.  Gen. Lee knew something was wrong.  In a few moments this Great Chief was among us, calm and noble, a quiet confidence resting upon his face.  I saw him then, and will never forget the scene.  Maj. Gen. Anderson now took command of our Corps, and on we moved through the Wilderness – formerly a coaling ground, and now densely covered for miles in all directions with a dense growth of small oaks.  The enemy had established a line of skirmishers, upon which we pressed hard: we then encountered their line of battle.  The 5th Regt on our left wavered, ours faltered.  The fire upon us was terrific.  Col. Hagood called upon me to act as Field officer and to rally the men of our Regt; many were falling back, others lying down.  My exposure was great, but I must do my duty, even if my life should be sacrificed. (May 15, 1864)

I have some idea of where I am going to submit the manuscript.  It’s going to be a pretty big book.  With that in mind I want to ask what you look for in a published primary source collection.  What kinds of editing practices do you look for in a book that is both readable and maintains the integrity of the original letters?

At one point I thought about trying the approach used by Albert Castel in Tom Taylor’s Civil War, which moves back and forth between commentary and extended passages from the letters.  I think that would be too much of a distraction as there is no reason not to allow Winsmith to tell his own story.  As far as the letters themselves, the only major decision I’ve made is to cut out passages that distract from the narrative.  I see no reason to hunt down every individual mentioned if it has no bearing on his war experience.  I realize that some may see this as problematic, but my primary goal is to ensure that the book offers an enjoyable reading experience.  Feel free to make the argument against it.

Beyond this I am all ears.  What suggestions do you have and/or what published edited letter collections would you have me read as a model?

Clean Up This Damn Mess

LeeIt’s another one of those slow days here at Civil War Memory, but I didn’t want Robert E. Lee’s birthday to pass without showing due respect.  With that in mind I thought we would once again try our hands at giving this print a caption.  This is a truly bizarre print.  I assume that in addition to Lee and Longstreet we are looking at John Bell Hood and A.P.Hill.  It looks like Hill’s horse is eating blood-stained grass.  What’s Lee complaining about?  Even Traveller looks upset with Longstreet.  I will leave the rest to you.

OK Ken, what do you got for us?

And if you are looking for something to listen to this Saturday evening, here is a nice discussion between Peter Carmichael, Allen Guelzo, and James McPherson.

Searching for Real Black Confederates in The Civil War Monitor

Civil War MonitorWell, that is at least the working title of an essay that will appear in the next issue of The Civil War Monitor. I just finished with the final edits and I am really happy with the final version.  As far as I know there is nothing out there in a popular publication that deals with this tough topic.  I do my best to bring some light to the relationship between slaveowners and their camp servants at war.  It’s an incredibly frustrating and challenging topic and I don’t claim to have provided the last word.  More than anything else, what I hope it does is raise questions and challenge assumptions on all sides – assumptions that almost always tell us more about the present as opposed to the past.

With that in mind, I hope my fellow high school history teachers will think about picking up a copy for their classrooms.  I think the essay will work well in getting students to think critically about the slave-master dynamic and related issues related to the war generally.

It’s been an absolute pleasure working with Terry Johnston and his editorial team.  They did a great job pushing back with questions that helped to improve both the narrative and analysis.  It clearly reflects their commitment to put out a first-rate magazine that is both a pleasure to read and thought provoking.

Do yourself a favor and get a subscription today.

Christian McWhirter on Taking Lincoln and Django Seriously

django-unchained-poster-e1357542813658.jpegI’ve been thinking about the gulf between the public’s response to Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and the overall commentary coming from professional historians and other public intellectuals.  I’ve commented on this before, but this morning I was pleased to read Christian McWhirter’s review of both movies in The Civil War Monitor.  Actually, it’s not really a review as much as it is a commentary on the value of the movies, which he believes has been overlooked by the academic community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Here are a few passages from McWhirter’s review that stood out for me.

Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.

I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.

It’s safe to say that these movies will do more to influence popular perceptions of the Civil War and slavery than all the books published in the past twenty years combined.  Unlike others, I fully embrace this fact.  Much of the commentary about these films does little more than highlight individual historians’ current research projects and tells us very little about the films themselves.  It’s not that I have a problem with pointing out shortcomings in historical content, but that they fail to acknowledge why these films are so popular with so many people from a broad range of backgrounds.  Christian hits the nail on the head when he references the emotional and intellectual engagement of their audiences.  We haven’t seriously explored this as of yet.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I am going to use these movies in the classroom – assuming that I can use Django at all.  Beyond the classroom I do hope that public historians are also thinking about how they can take advantage of this wave of enthusiasm.  It’s a unique opportunity that could not have come at a better time.  We are smack in the middle of the sesquicentennial having just commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation.  The issues and subject matter raised by these two films are incredibly controversial and fraught will all kinds of landmines.  Just getting people to think about them is a challenge and, yet, that is exactly what millions of Americans are doing.  What more could we ask for?

All of us in the historical community should give Spielberg and Tarrantino a big Thank You.