Celebrating Revisionist History

“[T]he enemy of Civil War history is everything people think they know about the conflict.” — Ed Ayers.

Thanks to everyone for the emails and comments about my most recent op-ed in the New York Times Disunion column.  Yesterday I took some time to catch up on some old posts.  What I value most about the Disunion site is its continued emphasis on introducing top-notch scholarship to a broad general audience.  Anyone who follows this column from its beginning through to 2015 will surely walk away with a firm grounding in Civil War history.  A few readers have suggested that the best articles ought to be collected in book form or in some other format and I couldn’t agree more.  They make for ideal high school level readings.

One of the best reasons as to why this site is so important can be found in William Thomas’s recent essay on how Southern railroads utilized slave labor.  I’ve mentioned Will’s book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, a number of times and even included it in my “best of 2011″ list.  Thomas’s research expands our understanding of how slave labor was utilized beyond the fields, its profitability, and its place within Americans’ understanding of their own exceptional place on the world stage.  In short, it reminds us of why revisionist history is so important to our understanding of the past.  Consider the following responses from a few readers:

In addition to the ownership by corporations, which I knew but had no idea it was apparently so extensive, it is astonishing (and appalling) that slaves could be used as collateral for loans. Thanks for another interesting and informative article in this series.

Wow, mention of corporation-owned slaves is just not in our school textbooks. How was their existance different than the agricultural/farm slaves? The Ballton’s experience would make for a fascinating film. truth can be stranger than fiction.

Wait a minute, does this mean that a substantial percentage of slaves were owned by corporations? All my life I have never heard of slaves owned by anyone but individuals. By families. What was it like to be owned by a corporation? Were the enslaved on average treated the same, better, or worse? Are there any corporate equivalents to the stories of slaves who chose to take care of their owners possessions when Union troops appeared?

I love the sense of surprise that comes through in their responses.  For most people history is made up of a set of stories, some of which are more closely guarded than others or are more popular within a certain community.   Depending on when and how these stories are learned can determine the response to the introduction of new information.  In the case of the Civil War era many people want nothing more than to hear the same stories told well.  In this case the reaction to new interpretations is often accompanied by a defensive or dismissive posture.

If we can manage to step back, however, from our own personal investment in certain stories we can appreciate and even celebrate the introduction of new information and how it effects our understanding of the past.  It has the potential to challenge some of our most deeply engrained assumptions about what happened and why and new questions arise that beg for further research.  In this case this brief column forces readers to step away from their popular images of slavery from “Gone With the Wind” or their high school textbooks and further assumptions about the master – slave relationship as well as the future of slavery in 1861.  This is revisionist history at its best.

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The Battlefield as Classroom (New York Times)

"Field of Lost Shoes" at New Market Battlefield

In December 2008 I was honored to deliver the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.  I used the opportunity to reflect on how I utilize battlefields to connect my students to American history.  Last year I decided to revise it to reflect the various places that I took students during my time in Virginia.  Taken together these trips remain my most memorable and enjoyable teaching experiences.  Thanks to Clay Risen of the New York Times for agreeing to publish it in their Disunion column.  This is my second essay in the series.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.

Read the rest of the essay.

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The Society of Civil War Historians and the Sesquicentennial

This morning I voted online for the next president of The Society of Civil War Historians.  I’ve been a member for a few years now and even had the opportunity to address the organization back in 2008.  The SCWH recently established a new book prize, a new journal, as well as a biennial conference.  I think these are all positive steps, but nothing here reaches beyond the traditional activities of an academic organization.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it is worth remembering that we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial.  I remember hearing rumblings from various folks in the SCWH at the first biennial meeting in Philadelphia that the organization would be active throughout the commemoration of the 150th.  So far, I’ve heard nothing.  It’s disappointing especially given the fact that so many members are engaged in a wide range of activities that involve the education of the general public.  I have no doubt that given the talent in the SCWH that it can take the lead on any number of projects.  Perhaps a partnership/collaboration with another organization is the way to go.

I wish the online ballots included vision statements from the candidates rather than the standard brief resumes that pretty much blend into one another.  They are all top notch scholars.  I am much more interested in the direction they want to steer the organization and whether they believe that this direction includes anything to mark the sesquicentennial and public education.

I will continue to look forward to each issue of the journal as well as the next conference, but it seems to me that this organization is capable of doing more, especially NOW.

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Civil War Memory Surpasses 1 Million Visits!

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The U.S. in U.S. Grant

Thanks to Scott Mackenzie for sending along the following notice from the New York Times, which was published on July 19, 1863.

At a torchlight procession in Belleville, Illinois, last week, one of the transparencies contained the following:

Major-Genernl U. S. Grant.

Unconditional Surrender Grant, Uncle Sam Grant, United States Grant, Unparalleled Success Grant, Unabridged Seizure Grant, Union-Saver Grant, Uudenlably Superior Grant. Uuflinching Surmounter Grant, Undaunted Soldier Grant, Understanding Secession Grant, Use Sambo Grant, Unshackle Slave Grant, Ultimate Subjugation Grant, Uncommon Smart Grant, Unequaled Smasher Grant, Utterly Solid Grant, Utmost Safety Grant, Unrivaled System Grant, Unexceptionable Scientific Grant, Undertake Sure Grant, Unbounded Spunk Grant, Universal Sanative Grant, Unadulterated Saltpetre Grant, Uniform Succeeder Grant, Undisputed Sagacity Grant, Unabated Siege Grant, Unbending Superexcellence Grant, Unexampled Skill Grant, Undoubtedly Spunky Grant, Usually Sober Grant, Unprecedented Sardine Grant.

Go in, U.S. — I see it now !

HEMINGER, SEN.

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