Thinking About Gary Gallagher’s Union

I just finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War, which in some ways functions as a companion volume to The Confederate War – published back in 1997.  Both studies offer highly readable critiques of a wide swath of Civil War historiography with an eye toward pointing out gaps in the literature.  In the earlier study that gap was a tendency to ignore the extent to which white Southerners forged a national identity around such military icons as Robert E. Lee.  Gallagher asked readers to think beyond the question of why the South lost and explore how the Confederacy managed to resist a concerted effort on the part of the United States to reunite the nation for four long years as well as how it managed to come close to independence on more than one occasion.  That opening in the historiography has been filled by Gallagher’s own graduate students and others, who have given us a much richer picture of nation building in the South.

In The Union War, Gallagher’s historiographic critique brings into sharp relief our tendency to minimize and even ignore the meaning that Northerners attached to Union.  In my opinion there is no one better at distilling academic debates for a general audience.  Gallagher devotes some of his sharpest criticisms to historians such as Chandra Manning and Barbara Field, who suggest that the massive amount of bloodshed could only be justified with emancipation and the end of slavery.  On the contrary, Gallagher argues that this runs rough shod over the the meaning of Union to the vast majority of Americans who rallied around the flag and Lincoln’s call to arms.  As in his previous study, Gallagher devotes a great deal of time to the importance that Americans attached to the army as a symbol of the nation and to the citizen-soldier, who exemplified its strong sense of sacrifice and patriotism.  At the center of this stood Ulysses S. Grant, who has been all but lost to our collective memory of the war.

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Reignite Your Faith Through Lincoln’s

This past week a letter surfaced written by William Herndon in 1866, which tells us nothing new about Abraham Lincoln’s faith.  You can purchase it for $35,000.

“Mr. Lincoln’s religion is too well known to me to allow of even a shadow of a doubt; he is or was a Theist & a Rationalist, denying all extraordinary — supernatural inspiration or revelation,” Herndon wrote in the letter, signed Feb. 4, 1866, a year after Lincoln’s assassination.  “At one time in his life, to say the least, he was an elevated Pantheist, doubting the immortality of the soul as the Christian world understands that term,” continued the letter, addressed to Edward McPherson, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. “I love Mr. Lincoln dearly, almost worship him, but that can’t blind me. He’s the purest politician I ever saw, and the justest man.”

Note: Civil War Memory is not an affiliate of this company. I just think it’s a hilarious video.


Upcoming Talk on Black Confederates + Appearance on History Detectives

I couldn’t be more excited about this talk.  This is my first public presentation on the subject and my first opportunity to formally outline my own thinking about the kinds of questions that need to be explored as well as the pitfalls involved in the current debate and reliance on the Internet as a reliable source.  The story of Silas and Andrew Chandler is the perfect case study for such a presentation.

I am also excited to announce that I will be involved in a production of an upcoming episode of the History Detectives, which will explore the life of these two men.  You may remember that the Antiques Road Show recently featured the original photograph of Silas and Andrew.  A number of people, including yours truly, raised serious questions about Wes Cowan’s interrogation of the artifact as well as his overall understanding of the subject.  It’s good to see that PBS is taking the time to dig deeper.  Filming will take place in May and I will keep you updated.


Acquisitions, 04/20

I did my best to dump as many books as possible in light of my move to Boston at the end of June, but new titles just continue to pour in.  In addition to recent review copies, I’ve listed some books that I am reading to brush up on my Massachusetts/Boston history.  I can’t wait to explore the incredibly rich history in and around the city.  Thanks to those of you who are purchasing Amazon books through Civil War Memory.  Sales have been steady, which has allowed me to purchase what I need without having to dip into my own pockets.  I truly appreciate it.

Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011).

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Do Civil War Re-enactors Not Order Domino’s Pizza?

I missed having the opportunity to comment on this story last week.  First, let me say that I couldn’t be more pleased that developers will be prevented from building a casino at Gettysburg.  That said, I’ve always thought that the battlefield preservation debate is best understood as a negotiation between legitimate competing interests rather than a moral crusade.  Gregg Segal’s photography project in which he situates re-enactors in various scenes of urban sprawl is perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency to offer a mutually exclusive choice between preservation and commercial development.

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Welcome Encyclopedia Virginia

With the addition of the VFH’s Encyclopedia Virginia to my list of advertisers I’ve sold just about every ad space available apart from two 125×125 slots in the right sidebar. EV is the most reliable online encyclopedia for Virginia history and it is still a work-in-progress. The Civil War selections are under the editorial supervision of Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College. You should also check out the EV companion blog as well as their page devoted to the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

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Looking Ahead to the Civil War Bicentennial

If you are looking for a reflection of how our collective understanding of the Civil War has changed over the past few years take a look at this small sample of state SOLs.   I suspect that we will continue to see a shift away from a curriculum that is inspired and sometimes distorted by the Lost Cause in the coming decades.  Interestingly, if you are looking for some of the most dramatic changes you just need to check out the following list of Southern states.  I pulled this from an article written by Eric Robelon for Education Week.

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Are Virginia Schools Still Teaching the Black Confederate Myth?

In the wake of the recent Virginia textbook scandal the general public was reassured by the Department of Education that the problem was being addressed.  I was contacted by the VDOE’s Director of Communications, Charles Pyle, following my NYTs editorial on the subject that proper action had been taken:

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provided detailed guidance to division superintendents and history specialists about the errors in “Our Virginia: Past and Present” on October 20 – the day the original Washington Post story was published. This guidance advised that the statement concerning the alleged service of black Southerners in the Confederate miliary is not in keeping with the Standards of Learning and is outside the bounds of accepted Civil War scholarship. The department consulted with several historians – including Dr. James Robertson of Virginia Tech – in preparing guidance for the field. This same week, two VDOE history specialists met personally with division history supervisors and classroom teachers during their back-to-back conferences in Williamsburg to raise awareness of the errors in the textbook and provide guidance about accurate instruction on the roles of blacks in both the Union and Confederate armies. Since late October, Superintendnet of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright has communicated repeatedly with school districts providing additional guidance and information about actions of the department and the state Board of Education regarding Our Virginia: Past and Present. It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

This past week I was contacted by a concerned parent, who wrote the following:

If I may, just a follow up on a point by Mr. Pyle (VA Dept Ed) now that the Times story has died down.  My daughter is a 4th grader in —— County Public School system.  As Mr. Pyle pointed out, “It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

My daughter just finished her Civil War unit, and despite Mr. Pyle’s assurances of ample guidance, Eva’s recent study guide for her test specifically included the point that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  I tried to explain to my daughter why this was not true, but because her own teacher had just lectured her on it she would not believe me.  She insisted that blacks fought because their masters threatened to kill them if they wouldn’t! I didn’t want to post this publicly because my aim is NOT to get my daughter’s teacher in trouble.  But —– County has done an abysmal job of correcting this misperception and my daughter is proof.  Mark my words, I bet that -CPS will still be using the erroneous textbook and any accompanying worksheets, study guides, etc next year.  Do you have any suggestions for a parent in my shoes?  I fear a visit to the principal or school board rep will be brushed off with the usual “We’ve got this under control…”  Thanks for your work!

I’ve heard other stories as well that suggest that this problem is not being adequately addressed.  I am not surprised.  I would recommend that this parent contact the proper authorities in her child’s district.  Perhaps a local committee of concerned parents can be organized.  After all, it was a concerned parent, who happened to be a historian, that initially exposed this problem.  The alternative is the continued dissemination of a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Civil War and Virginia history.