I am about half-way through Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox and I am enjoying it immensely. While I’ve read a few essays and sections of various books this is the first Catton book that I will read in its entirety. It is easy to see why he is so popular and I have a much better sense of how he excited the imagination of an entire generation. Catton was an incredibly talented writer and his sense of narrative is infectious. On a number of occasions I found myself completely immersed in Catton’s world. At the same time I can’t help but reflect on the book as a product of its time.
Given its publication in 1953, Stillness functioned as a wonderful example of a national history of the Civil War. The narrative would have appealed to a wide range of Americans, who had experienced the horrors of WWII and the emergence of the United States as the most powerful nation and self-proclaimed leader of the free world. Increasing tensions during the early Cold War period and a conscious self reflection that emphasized freedom and democracy constitute an important cultural and political backdrop necessary to understand this book’s influence.
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The latest issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography arrived this past week and it includes a very thoughtful essay by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, titled, “The Long Civil War: A Historiography of the Consequences of the Civil War.” In September Aaron will take up a new teaching position as the Eberly Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University. The essay is related to his current research project, which contextualizes and compares the practices of violence in the American Civil War with other civil and national conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century. Consider the following:
Civil War scholars need to write broader histories in both temporal and spatial terms. For too long, Civil War historians have been justly criticized for writing within a deep but narrow and disconnected part of the larger community of scholars studying the United States. The challenge of articulating the long-term effects of the conflict goes to the heart of what Civil War history should accomplish. Writing histories that account for the war’s full impact offers a way to reconnect scholars of the war with those in other fields. It will diminish the possibility of historians ignoring the war because their work concerns seemingly unrelated elements. Beyond the disciplinary advances that such an approach might facilitate, historians have a professional obligation to address the topic more clearly. When our nation weighs entering military conflicts, policymakers consider the costs and benefits of previous wars. Vietnam and World War II have dominated recent discussions of American war making, for good reason, but the Civil War provides an important model as well. It offers a window onto the most pressing questions we face: invasion, occupation, reconstruction, changing war plans, and tensions between military and political goals.
We, in contrast, are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves–in language and gesture, external and internal. The most obvious difference in our environment that would explain this difference in our behavior is the behaviour itself. Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words. These words are potent elements of our environment that we readily incorporate, ingesting and extruding them, weaving them like spiderwebs into self-protective strings of narrative. Indeed. . . when we let in these words, these meme-vehicles, they tend to take over, creating us out of the raw materials they find in our brains. (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained 1991)
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According to Brian Schoeneman it does. That name might right a bell for regular readers of CWM. On occasion, Brian has commented not so much on the content of my posts, but on my handling of various discussion threads. Brian is a candidate for Virginia House of Delegates in Fairfax, Virginia. Recently he toured South Mountain, Harpers Ferry, and Antietam with Scott Manning. As a campaign promise, Brian promised the following:
I asked Brian if he was surprised at the lack of Confederate monuments. “Actually, I am. It kinda annoys me. There are about a zillion Union monuments here. Granted, the North took more casualties at Antietam, but they had more guys to lose.” He recalled one of the informational markers he read, “The Army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of their strength and the Army of the Potomac lost about an eighth. It was much harder for the South to replace those casualties than it was for the North.” Brian clarified that, if elected, he planned to introduce legislation next year to place a Virginia state monument on the battlefield in commemoration of the sesquicentennial. I pointed out that such a move could backfire if not done properly and he interrupted me, “There’s nothing political about recognizing that folks in the army of the state that I’m from fought here and died here. They deserve to be remembered regardless of what side they fought on and it bothers me there is nothing here, because I know there are plenty at Gettysburg.”
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We all know that certain Civil War narratives die hard, none more so than the black Confederate myth. While it will continue to spread on the Web and rear its ugly head from time to time in various popular forums it will never gain legitimacy in our most respected private and public historical institutions. This fact has nothing to do with a conspiracy to conceal the facts from the general public or some vaguely defined liberal bias and everything to do with what we know about this subject.
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