Have Unit Histories Hit a Brick Wall?

I just finished reading Scott Mingus’s book on the Louisiana Tigers for a review in the journal, Louisiana History.  Mingus’s focus is specifically the Gettysburg Campaign (June-July 1863)  Let me just say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Mingus has a command of the relevant primary sources and the book is well written and should be read by those interested in military history, Louisiana History and, of course, Gettysburg.  I will post the review when it is published, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that will not make it in the review owing to space issues.

It seems to me that unit histories fall into one of two camps.  The first one, and by far the most prominent, is the standard/traditional unit history, which emphasizes the campaigns/battles in which the unit participated.  This should come as no surprise given that this is what most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in.  The focus may be on a unit’s experience in a particular campaign or the war as a whole.  By focusing on one unit the historian is able to provide a level of tactical detail that is usually absent from broader studies.  The best of the bunch may even be able to point out crucial aspects of a particular battle that work to revise our understanding of its outcome and significance.  Mingus’s book fits neatly into this first camp.  He offers the reader a brief history of the unit, beginning with the raising of Company B under the command of Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat in New Orleans in 1861.  Mingus briefly touches on the unit’s early history before the battalion was assigned to the First Louisiana Brigade under the command of brigadier general Harry T. Hays in 1862.  From there it is a quick jump to the spring of 1863 following the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  Mingus does an outstanding job of following the unit on its march north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and covers the unit’s involvement in the battle of Second Winchester in great detail.  It goes without saying that Mingus’s coverage of the “Louisiana Tigers” at Gettysburg will satisfy even the most voracious appetites for tactical detail. [click to continue…]

A Confederate Invasion?

I‘m behind in my APUS History classes which has forced me to move quickly through the Civil War.  You can imagine how frustrating that is given my interests.  Regardless, I am very particular about the language I use to describe the past and I expect my students to be attentive to such matters as well.  It matters how we refer or describe individuals and events, especially when discussing our Civil War.  I’ve already mentioned my preference for consistently referring to the United States rather than the Union or the North.

In my discussions today I noticed a couple of students looking at me funny whenever I referred to a Confederate invasion of the United States.  Of course, I was referring specifically to the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and Gettysburg Campaign the following summer.  [We could also throw in Jubal Early’s little foray in 1864 in as well.]  I inquired into their strange stares and one of the students admitted that he was not used to thinking of the Confederate army as an invading army.  Not surprisingly, this same student had no difficulty coming to terms with an invasion of the South or Confederacy.  A few students embraced Lincoln’s fairly consistent belief that the southern states were in rebellion and therefore still a part of the nation, but they had no qualms with the idea of an invasion.

I guess this has everything to do with the assumption that the Confederacy was simply fighting a defensive war.  But it also goes to some of our more cherished beliefs that draw a sharp distinction between Confederate and United States armies.  For the latter, we immediately think of Grant and Sherman, who did, in fact, engage in aggressive offensives throughout the war.  On the other hand, we do have difficulty acknowledging the same aggressive tendencies in Confederate commanders.  We would rather remember them as leading a gallant defensive effort against overwhelming resources rather than as engaged in a war that would hopefully lead to independence for all slave holding states.  Invasions are carried out by generals like Grant and Sherman, not by Lee and Jackson.  I suspect that my students are dealing with this baggage.  If I had more time or if that comment had come in my elective course on the Civil War I could have utilized any number of primary and secondary sources that shed light on this subject.

If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox

Interestingly, this film was done in 1982, well before the YouTube Era.  You will have to excuse me, but for some reason I find this sort of video to be quite funny.  This one clearly reflects the persistence of the “Grant the Drunk” narrative.  A more recent video that depicts Grant with bottle can be found here.  Enjoy.

Dare To Ask Questions

Somehow I became a topic of concern over at Michael Aubrecht’s blog because I dared to comment on the Richard Kirkland story during the same week that a new website and film preview were introduced.  I find it funny that both Aubrecht and Richard Williams make a point of minimizing my influence even as they spend their time worrying about what I write.  Anyway, this little gem of a comment from Williams made my day:

“Outside of his classroom and blog, he has very little influence.”

Precisely Michael. Dana Shoaf of Civil War Times said in an interview a while back that, “The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience.” I’ve personally noticed that academics, particularly those like Levin, talk mostly to themselves. Shoaf further noted, “people often are reluctant to read social history because they think it is boring.” Levin is a “social historian” and a self-proclaimed “activist historian.” That limits his influence and impact.  Moreover, Levin’s (and many of his followers) constant impugning and mocking of Confederate heritage and history turns a lot of people in the “popular audience” category off, which even further narrows his influence.

In reference to the Richard Kirkland documentary that is slated for release in the near future, let me just say that I wish the people involved all the success in the world.  No doubt, they put a great amount of time into this project and I am sure that it will find an enthusiastic audience.  As I stated in my first post in the series, I decided to write about it after reading Peter Carmichael’s recent Fredericksburg commemoration talk in which he referenced Kirkland.  That led me to what I thought was an interesting essay on some of the sources for the story that I featured as a guest post.  That, in turn, led to a pretty good discussion.  I guess I never realized that raising questions about a popular story in our collective memory of the Civil War would be such a problem.

By the way, Richard, Dana Shoaf is featuring one of my articles in the next issue of Civil War Times.  😀

Gone With the Wind at 70

This year is the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind and this week my Civil War Memory class will watch it.  Depending on how they respond to it we may even watch it in its entirety.  There are so many thought provoking scenes, which will allow us to address a number of interpretive threads that have been passed down in our collective memory.  With Birth of a Nation already under their belt they will also be able to begin to track certain themes in popular culture during the first part of the twentieth century.

In addition to viewing the movie, students will have to write an analytical review that addresses questions that I have provided.  This time around they will also have to spend some time on one of our school’s databases that includes newspapers from around the country.  They will have to integrate reviews and editorials into their essays.  We will start with the following blog post from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to get the juices flowing.

Black Confederates Defined on Facebook

One of my FB friends invited me to join a group dedicated to black Confederates. There are just under 200 members.  No surprise that just about all of them are white, including Rickey Pittman.  There is nothing serious about the site.  Essentially, it serves as a dumping ground for the same tired stories that populate the Web.  To get a sense of how ridiculous this is consider the fact that they use an image of Jim Limber as their profile picture.  One of the more aspects of the site is the attempt to define who constitutes a black Confederate.  Check it out:

BLACK CONFEDERATE DEFINED: 1. Any Black person, slave or free, a subject of a seceded Southern state, who faithfully performed his/her duties during the existence of the Confederate States of America. There were 3.5 million blacks in 1860 census residing in Southern states so the number of Black Confederates numbers in millions, not thousands.

Black Confederate Definition 2: Post War 1865-1940. Blacks of any age and gender and including veterans who identified with and defended the Confederate Cause, its symbols and veterans.

Black Confederate Definition 3: Modern. Blacks of any age and gender who identify with and defend the Confederate Cause, its symbols and heroes; and who belong to the Confederate Community and/or consider themselves Confederate Southern Americans.

So, I guess the tens of thousands of free blacks and fugitive slaves who served in the U.S. Army betrayed a cause that they morally ought to have supported in some way.  Notice also that the term has been completely watered down beyond any kind of presence with the Confederate army.  I guess “faithfully performed his/her duties” simply means that they maintained their roles as slaves.  As for Definition #2 I would love to know who they have in mind.  Is there a Preferred Membership option for those who maintained their loyalty even as Jim Crow hardened race relations at the turn of the twentieth century?  Finally, I guess they have the likes of H.K. Edgerton in mind for their Modern category.

There is something quite disturbing about a bunch of white people recruiting blacks to buttress their silly beliefs about the loyalty of tens of thousands of slaves.

New York and Slavery

Just returned from a wonderful trip to the “Big Apple” with my wife.  We caught two excellent jazz shows featuring guitarist Mike Stern at the Iridium Club.  Both shows featured some excellent players, including Sonny Fortune (sax), Buster Williams (b), Victor Wooten (b), Dennis Chambers (dr) and Randy Brecker (trumpet) and Jimmy Cobb (dr).  We tried to see the exhibit at the Tenement Museum, but it was too crowded.  Be smart and buy tickets in advance.  Unfortunately, I completely forgot about the slavery exhibit at the New York Historical Society.  I’ve read nothing but positive reviews of the exhibit and even though scholars have been writing about slavery and race in the North for quite some time it is a topic that is sorely misunderstood by the general public.  Hopefully we can catch it next time we are in town.  For now check out this wonderful introductory video of the exhibit.  I love the creativity and the way they utilize the old lithographs.

By the way, there is a brand new book on the subject that is slated to be published in the coming weeks that looks to be very interesting.

Best of 2009

Once again, thanks to all of you for making Civil War Memory part of your daily Online travels.  There were plenty of good books published in the field of Civil War history in 2009 and 2010 looks to be just as good.  Listed below are a few of my favorite titles from the past year.  I hope all of you are enjoying the Holiday Season.

Best History Blog: American History Now This was the easiest pick of the year.  Those of you well versed in the historiography of Civil War memory studies may be familiar with Jim Cullen’s book, The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past.  Somehow between his many publications and teaching, Jim has managed to maintain what is in my mind one of the best history/teaching blogs.  He blogs about all things American history and culture and his ongoing series about a fictional history teacher is a must read.  This is intelligent and creative blogging at its best.

Best Civil War Blog: Gettysburg Daily Can’t get to Gettysburg?  The next best thing is a regularly updated blog that is packed with beautiful photographs, panoramas, and tours with Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides.  A great deal of work goes into each post, which leaves one wondering how they are able to maintain the site on a regular basis.  Well, however they do it, I just want to say that it is appreciated by this Civil War enthusiast.

Best History Book of 2009: Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1798-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Best Overall Civil War History: Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2009).

Best Campaign Study: William Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Best Biography: Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Best Confederate Study: Barton Myers, Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Community, 1861-1865 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

Best Union Study: Stephen Ramold, Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).

Best Slavery Study: Lacy Ford, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Best Memory Study: Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (University of California Press, 2009).

Best Edited Collection: Lee Ann Whites and Alicia P. Long, Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation and the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

Best Social History: Jeffrey McClurken, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2009).

Some good things to look forward to in 2010: Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis (UNC Press and the Littlefield Series, June 2010); William W. Freehling, Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (University of Virginia Press, April 2010); Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (University of North Carolina Press, April 2010); Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, April 2010); C.S. Manegold, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North (Princeton University Press, January 2010); Larry Logue and Peter Blanck eds., Race, Ethnicity, and the Treatment of Disability in Post-Civil War America (Cambridge University Press, June 2010).