Will It Be a ‘Point of Honor’ to Respect the Past?

Of course, we should not pre-judge Amazon’s forthcoming Civil War drama called, “Point of Honor.” But let’s be honest, it is very likely going to be another in a long line of disasters.

At the start of the Civil War, a Virginia family, led by their West Point bred son, John Rhodes (played by Nathan Parsons, True Blood), makes the controversial decision to defend the South while freeing all of their slaves. At battle against his northern brethren and his best friend and brother-in-law Robert Sumner (played by Christopher O’Shea, Baby Daddy), John leaves his three strong-willed sisters at home to run the plantation that is now without a free labor source. The choice to protect the life they have always known and defend the moral high ground will pit the family against one another and test their strength, courage and love.

While full-scale Hollywood movies such as “Lincoln” and “Twelve Years a Slave” have left their mark, smaller productions have been less successful. Think of the failed Kickstarter campaigns organized by Ron Maxwell and the producers of “To Appomattox.” The need to distance central characters from the institution of slavery closely follows the narrative in “Field of Lost Shoes” as it does with the 1960s Hollywood movie, “Shenandoah.”

I look forward to seeing how “Point of Honor” pulls off explaining why a Virginia slaveowning family would free all their slaves at the beginning of the war.

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“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war. [click to continue…]

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A View of Emancipation From South of the Border

Emancipation MapOver the past few weeks my survey courses have been examining the political debates over the expansion of slavery in the United States as well as the experience of the slaves themselves. As part of the introduction to my Civil War unit today I tried to emphasize just how unexpected the end of slavery was in this country. Few Americans could have anticipated its abrupt end in 1860 given the continued rise in the value of slaves, the amount of wealth slave labor generated, and the extent to which it had become infused in American society.

I also shared with my students that some historians, including William Freehling, have speculated that without a war slavery could have continued into the twentieth century. This last point took them for a loop. They were unable to imagine the United States in the twentieth century with slaves. One student suggested that the system of slave labor always appeared incompatible with a modern economy. A few other students simply had trouble with the idea of the leader of the free world still holding onto slavery.

At that moment I decided to photocopy a short excerpt from Ed Baptist’s new book, which I will share tomorrow, but in the meantime I asked students to consider the image below. I wanted them to understand that even in 1865 (the year slavery ended) the United States was far from the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I found this image, but it certainly left an impression on my students.

We will continue the discussion tomorrow.

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History Books That People Actually Read in 2014

Bestselling History 2014I’ve seen this image floating around over the past few days on various social media channels after it was featured during an American Historical Association Session this past weekend in New York City. The session was titled: “Buying and Selling History: Some Perspectives on the Marketplace” and the image was posted by Marla Miller on Twitter.

I can’t say there are any surprises. Here is what I see.

  • Most of the authors are journalists
  • Overwhelmingly male
  • Television/radio personalities can leverage large/loyal audiences
  • Subjects lean toward the Whiggish
  • Mostly top-down history
  • History is politics and vice versa
  • Bonus: Many titles empower their readers

What do you see?

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“Forever Scarred By Their Service”?

In re-reading a section of Anne Rubin’s new book about Sherman’s March I came across a couple of paragraphs that touch on some of the concerns that I’ve expressed about the extent to which we have applied the lessons of recent wars to Civil War veterans. Rubin hones in on the dangers of doing so in regard to how Union veterans remembered the march and their interactions with Southern civilians.

Nor did they use memoirs or fiction to pour out their hearts and souls, expressing shock or trauma at what they saw or did. Today we are accustomed to stock war stories with their mix of crusty old generals, fresh-faced young recruits, and eventually the traumatized veteran, forever haunted by the things he saw and did… Recently, we’ve seen the twenty-first century version, with a host of new memoir s of Gulf War service. In April 2008, a Rand Corporation study announced that one in five service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. We think that soldiers are forever scarred by their service, especially when they are asked to make war on civilians.

But what of their nineteenth-century counterparts? Analogies have often been made, albeit imperfectly, between the Vietnam War and Sherman’s March. James Reston’s 1986 work, Sherman’s March and Vietnam makes the connection most explicitly, arguing that Sherman was the metaphorical father of destructiveness and that connections can be drawn between the soldiers of the 1860s and 1960s. In Reston’s words, “the wanton violence of Sherman’s bummer and Westmoreland’s grunt differs as looting differs from killing, but neither time nor morals are static. Stealing the jewels from a peasant’s hooch in Vietnam would be precious little crime today. The patterns of behavior in both armies were encouraged by the official policy and extended the rules of permissible conflict in the same degree.” So, if Vietnam (and now Gulf and Afghanistan) veterans have been troubled by their service, and indeed, the vast majority of their writings seems to indicate that they were, one might be able to assume that Sherman’s veterans felt a similar sort of, if not remorse, at least discomfort. (p. 97)

According to Rubin, however, they did not. Perhaps as the author suggests these veterans remembered in a “celebratory fashion” because they were convinced that they had won the war. Of course, the same individual could just as easily exhibit symptoms of what we now call PTSD or struggle in any number of ways readjusting to life as a civilian. Again, my interest here is not in discounting recent attempts to apply the lessons learned in recent wars, but rather in remaining attentive to how we apply them.

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