Thank You, Dr. Robertson

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial “Signature Conference” hosted by Virginia Tech and organized by James I. Robertson.  I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews of the event.  As many of you know Dr. Robertson is retiring from his teaching position at Tech this year.  He has touched the lives of many and has added immeasurably to the general public’s understanding of the war.  Here is a short clip of his farewell remarks from the conference.

On a different note, I understand that some of you are having trouble viewing comments on the blog. The trouble seems to be with Internet Explorer. For now, I recommend using Firefox, Google Chrome, or Safari.

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The Ghost of Karl Betts

Update: In it’s first decision since the resignation of half of its committee members, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission denied a funding request from The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee. It turns out that the committee invited H.K. Edgerton to give the keynote address. Clearly, the WV commission made the right decision.

Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman.  His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race.  This meant battle reenactments and parades.  Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments.  As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.

As far as I know, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is the first case of a sharp divide between those who want to entertain as opposed to educate.  This report is based largely on an interview done with Professor Mark Snell, who is the vice chairman of the commission.  [I should note that I am good friends with Professor Snell and I trust his judgment.]

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The Problem With Civil War Movies

There seems to be a good deal of anticipation for History’s upcoming movie, Gettysburg, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott.  I am not one of them.  Audience’s will likely experience a visually stimulating and gritty depiction of the actual battle.  The goal of the movie, according to the History website is the following:

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, GETTYSBURG strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light–a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future. Cinematic in scope, GETTYSBURG is an information-packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little-known facts surrounding the battle. Developed in collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, GETTYSBURG reflects hundreds of individual accounts of the battle–the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation. [Click here for a preview.]

Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?”  Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart?  I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely.  Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.”  We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.

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Teaching Civil War Battlefields

Yesterday Brooks Simpson offered a brief reflection on why he spends time at Civil War battlefields.  He also asks of his readers why they visit these places.  Back in 2008 I was invited to give the keynote address at the National Park Services’s [FSNMP] annual commemoration in Fredericksburg.  I took the opportunity to share why I bring my students to Civil War battlefields.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.

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New York City’s Southern Community

I’ve suggested before that how Americans remember their Civil War can no longer be so easily drawn along strict regional boundaries.  Consider the video below.  On May 15th, 2011, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Archibald Gracie Camp and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as other members of New York City’s Southern Community gathered at The French Church in Manhattan for a Memorial Service honoring the Confederate Dead, 150 years after the Civil War.  Dr. Michael S. Kogan delivered this sermon on the causes of the War and the legacy of the Southern Soldier.

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Introducing the First White Black Confederate Soldier

Thanks once again to Andy Hall at Dead Confederates for once again taking the time to expose the house of cards that is the myth of the black Confederate soldier.  This is another example of a website that purports to be educational, but is really nothing more than a list of names by state, most of which are clearly referenced as slaves – both body servants and impressed.  There is almost no serious analysis nor is there any indication of the methodology utilized to order, catalog, and interpret the men listed.  Somehow the facts are suppose to speak for themselves, whatever that means.  The site is called Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) and is run by George Purvis.  You will also find such lists on other websites along with the same shoddy or limited analysis.

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New People, New Audiences

One of the things that I am looking forward to with my upcoming move to Boston is the opportunity to meet new people and join new organizations.   I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of historical institutions in the Boston area as well as the wide range of programs and workshops that are available to the general public.  I’ve already joined the Massachusetts Historical Society and I can’t wait to dive into their incredibly rich archival collection and attend some of their programs.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been scrambling to read as much Massachusetts history as possible.  I am currently reading Richard D. Brown’s, Massachusetts: A Concise History, T.H. Breen’s, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, and Michael Rawson’s, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston.

I am also hoping to set up as many speaking engagements as my calendar will permit, which should also give me the chance to meet some new people.  With that in mind I ask that you consider me for a presentation to your Civil War Roundtable, historical society seminar, and especially teaching workshops.  I’ve set up a page with additional information.  I look forward to hearing from some of you.

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Virginia at War, 1865 Now Available for Pre-Order

I wrote this essay so long ago that I almost forgot about it.  The other day I learned that the final volume [link to Amazon] in the Virginia at War series edited by James I. Robertson and William C. Davis is now available for pre-order and is slated for publication in November.  I was asked to contribute an essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  That is an incredibly broad topic and with my word limit I had to think carefully about how to narrow my focus.  In the end I decided to look at the first few weeks following the surrender at Appomattox and specifically at the experiences of the men as they walked home. The research process was difficult owing to the fact that so few men kept a record of their journeys home.  Here is a taste.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: The Demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lawrence Taliaferro’s civil war should have ended on very familiar ground when he crossed the Rappahannock River by Fredericksburg shortly after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.  Instead, Taliaferro was struck by the drastic changes to the landscape.  Abandoned and rusting war machinery littered the ground as well as the bones of old mules and horses.  The surrounding forests had been leveled to serve the needs of warring armies throughout the conflict.  As Taliaferro traversed those final twelve miles to what he hoped would be the comforts of his family’s estate he became disoriented by the numerous paths that obscured a well-known road.  Eventually he lost his way and was forced to ask for directions.  An elderly black man, who Taliaferro later learned was an ex-slave of the family, escorted the confused and tired young man to his home.

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