The beginning of this blog post from The Weekly Standard by Thomas Donnelly serves as a reminder that something is missing in the way we tend to think about the events in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1862:
…but the fights that brought Confederate General Robert E. Lee to the fore also marked the beginning of a period where the future of the United States was increasingly in doubt. From the moment George McClellan retreated from the gates of Richmond until the repulse of Lee’s final attack at Gettysburg on July 3 a year later, the course of the war, the fate of the American continent, and the prospects for human liberty hung by a thread.
We get caught up in a narrative that pits a blundering George McClellan at the gates of Richmond against a bright new star in Robert E. Lee, who fundamentally altered the landscape of war by September 1862. Don’t get me wrong, we need to understand the strategic and tactical decisions made by commanders on the ground and we may even feel a little pleasure in watching Lee set out on a road that will lead to some impressive battlefield victories, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the future of the United States of America hung in the balance.
If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance?
1. That public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes.
2. That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past.
3. That the past may be mobilized to serve partisan purposes.
4. That the past is commercialized for the sake of tourism and related enterprises.
5. That invocations of the past (as tradition) may occur as a means of resisting change or of achieving innovations.
6. That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.
7. That the past and its sustaining evidence may give pleasure for purely aesthetic and non-utilitiarian reasons.
8. And finally, that individuals and small groups who are strongly tradition-oriented commonly seek to stimulate a shared sense of the past within their region.
From Charleston it’s back to Gettysburg for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Educator’s Conference, which is organized by the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation. I get to talk about digital media literacy, but the highlight for me will be my talk on teaching the movie Glory in the Majestic Theatre. It should be a lot of fun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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