Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee. The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET. Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode. We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.” The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar. The folks at American Experience did a fine job.
The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them. While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS. He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates. In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.” It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.
As many of you know I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project on the subject of black Confederates. While much of my blogging has centered on countering the nonsense coming out of certain camps concerning numbers and vague references to “loyalty” and “reconciliation” my real interest in this subject is firmly grounded in the war itself. I am particularly interested in how the Confederate war effort shaped the master-slave relationship. As I type this I am staring at rows upon rows of books that explore slave life and culture during the antebellum period. I’ve learned a great deal from these books. However, what I want to better understand is how the exigencies of war shaped the institution during its final few years, particularly in an environment away from what both parties had grown accustomed to.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time re-reading the John C. Winsmith letters, which I’ve finished transcribing and hope to publish at some point soon. You can read about Winsmith in an earlier post, which includes one of the roughly 250 letters that he wrote over the course of the war. Winsmith’s letters, which detail his relationship with his personal servant, Spencer, presents historians with a rich spectrum of experiences that deserve closer study. One gets a sense of how close proximity between master and slave drew both closer. At the same time the eventual outcome of this story raises profound questions about the extent to which the two truly understood one another.
At no point does Winsmith refer to Spencer as a soldier and at no point in this collection of letters does he refer to black Confederate soldiers. Reading these letters one gets the sense that Winsmith would have been horrified to learn of black men serving as soldiers. I’ve written quite a bit about these references, but I am curious as to what you see.
Sullivan’s Island, April 26, 1861
I have been doing very well in my quarters here in the Moultrie House, having a comfortable room [etc]. Spencer has proved himself an excellent cook and our mess cannot listen to the talk of his leaving: he was a little home-sick for the first few days, but is now anxious to remain; and believe he is making more money than any of us: he has become washer [?] and is adept at every sort of duty. The time that I do not require his attention, I give him for himself.
April 29, 1861
Spencer has had a cold, but is now better. He sends howdye to Peg and the other negroes. He was very glad to get those nice things from home, and they were so much better than what we have been having. Continue reading →
I was unable to attend the most recent biennial meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians back in June so I missed the keynote address by Gary Gallagher and Ed Ayers. Luckily, C-SPAN was there and recorded the entire session. I am particularly interested in Gallagher’s talk since it encompasses much of what will be included in his forthcoming book, The Union War. Gallagher argues that the role of Union forces must be acknowledged in any attempt to understand the progress of emancipation during the war. In doing so he challenges the self-emancipation thesis as well as the more popular image of Lincoln as the “great emancipator.” Here is a short clip of Gallagher’s talk while you can find the entire session here.
The University of Mississippi Press was kind enough to send along a review copy of James Loewen’s and Ed Sebesta’s new book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”. It looks like an interesting collection of primary sources related to our collective memory of the cause of secession and the importance of slavery to the Civil War. I look forward to delving into it more deeply in the coming weeks. No doubt, I will take advantage of a few of these documents next trimester in my course on the Civil War and historical memory.
What I find troubling, however, is the title of this book. I’ve learned quite a bit about the evolution and contours of our collective memory in the course of my reading and blogging. One thing that struck me early won as the futility of lumping people together around vague labels. Such an attempt is almost always ahistorical, but more importantly, it tends to function as a non-starter. In other words, it tends to embolden certain folks and reinforce feelings of fear and suspicion. If you peruse the first year of this blog’s archives you will notice that I casually employed the label ‘Neo-Confederate.’ In more recent years I’ve become much more careful with my choice of words and only on rare occasions will I reference Neo-Confederates.
Much of this ongoing dialog about Civil War memory has little to do with historical scholarship; rather, for many folks it is about “heritage,” “a sense of place,” and an emotional hold on certain narratives. We can probably attribute the cover and title to the publisher, whose primary goal is to grab the attention of potential readers and sell books. I just have to wonder whether such a combination will turn off readers even before cracking the cover.