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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I say half-hearted because I only made it through the first hour of the movie. It was much worse than I had anticipated, but before proceeding. Of course, I understand that I was not the target audience for this documentary film. The problems for me started with the opening scenes, which placed the viewer on the battlefield on the morning of the first day without any context whatsoever. I didn’t find such a move to be dramatic in any way, just confusing. It goes without saying that I didn’t learn anything new about the battle, but I did appreciate the attempt to highlight the experiences of eight individuals; unfortunately, the script was so disjointed that I found it impossible to identify with anyone in the film. At one point the issue of escaped slaves was raised and a moment later was dropped. It seemed completely removed from the broader narrative.
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Dimitri Rotov has a fiery post up that evaluates Joseph Glatthaar’s recent scholarship – specifically his use of statistical analysis in his recent studies. It’s a worthwhile read, though Rotov chose to embeds his analysis in his vaguely-defined “Centennialist” school paradigm. He begins with this little gem:
“Joseph T. Glatthaar is an early middle-aged Centennialist being groomed by Gary Gallagher to walk in the shoes of himself, Sears, McPherson, and the old storytellers – Williams, Williams, Catton, etc.”
I’m sure Glatthaar would find such an evaluation of his career as laughable, but this sort of critique is standard in Rotov’s arsenal. In the end, it fails to shed any light at all on Glatthaar’s scholarship. We do get closer to a formal critique re: Glatthaar’s citing of casualty figures in General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. Rotov begins by taking Glatthaar to task for his imprecise citation of casualty figures and his failure to utilize Thomas Livermore’s Numbers and Losses. Rotov didn’t bother to look up Glatthaar’s references for his Cedar
Creek Mountain, but it only takes a few seconds to learn that they were pulled out of one of the appendices in Robert K. Krick’s, Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain. It’s not clear to me what exactly is problematic with citing one of the authorities on this particular battle.
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This morning I learned that I will be speaking on the subject of black Confederates at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which will take place in Richmond in October. Thanks to National Park Service Ranger, Emmanuel Dabney, for putting together an excellent panel that will offer different perspectives on this subject. Proponents of this myth, who rush to cite Ervin Jordan as a supporter, ought to carefully read his session description.
It ought to be a well-attended session and the discussion will, no doubt, be entertaining. The conference as a whole promises to be quite interesting given that the theme is the Civil War and the Sesquicentennial. We don’t have a specific time for the session, but I will be sure to pass it on as more information becomes available.
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