Was Abraham Lincoln an Actor or Reactor?

I give fairly regular quizzes in my classes.  In my Civil War course I tend to give students a question that integrates their reading for the week.  I am interested in both whether they’ve retained the relevant content and the extent to which they can evaluate it.  Last week we concentrated on the events that led to Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in July 1862.  We discussed the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Generals Butler and Hunter, pressure from Radical Republicans, the movements of fugitive slaves, the end of slavery in Washington D.C. and the territories and, of course, the flow of events on the battlefield by mid-summer 1862.  It is very important to me that my students get beyond the “Great Emancipator” view of Lincoln.  Students should understand the complexity of events that led to emancipation and they should be asked to evaluate Lincoln’s place in this overall process.  I agree that the “Who Freed the Slaves Debate” has been played out, but that should not prevent us from continuing to reevaluate Lincoln’s importance in this important process.  With that in mind I decided to ask my students to respond to the following question:

To what extent was Abraham Lincoln and an actor or a reactor in the chain of events that led to his issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862?  Your answer should include references to relevant individuals, events, and concepts.

Want to take the quiz?  Go ahead and I will even give you a grade. 🙂

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Who Knew Harold Holzer Had a Sense of Humor

Actually, I’ve never met Harold Holzer, but his review of John Avery’s Lincoln Uber Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America, which can be found in the latest issue of North and South (November 2010) magazine is hilarious.  I am not the biggest fan of reviews that go beyond a strict critique of the argument, but as far as I am concerned book published by Pelican Press are open season:

Second, the author suggests that German-born refugees from the 1848 Revolutions in Europe radicalized the Republican Party with foreign-bred Communistic ideas (such outrages as “equality throughout the nation”).  their support tipped the election to Lincoln in 1860 thus ending idyllic American life as we knew and loved it, when men were men, and slaves presumably knew their place.  This Gone with the Wiener Schnitzel theory would be sickening were it not so silly.  Anyone who counts picture-publisher Louis Prang as a dangerous fomenter of socialism, or believes Germans really made Lincoln president (even a big German vote in Missouri beyond a minuscule 2%), has been smoking too many European cigarettes or reading too much Thomas DiLorenzo or the current governor of Virginia…. However, those who seek confirmation of the wildest of old and new conspiracy theories, including the belief that Lincoln’s presidency paved the way for nation-building, FBI stings, the London Blitz, Hiroshima, and the government raid on Waco, need look no further than Lincoln Uber Alles.  Let the record show that I said “Waco,” not “wacko,” though either word will do.

Looking for more laughs?  Check out the customer reviews on the Amazon site.

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Of Atheists and Simple Men

James I. Robertson had this to say about “Stonewall” Jackson in a recent interview:

“I don’t think an atheist would get to first base writing a biography about Jackson.”

“He was a very, very simple man.”

I have to admit that I’ve never met a simple man.

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Just in Time For the Sesquicentennial of the “War For Southern Independence”

The Georgia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans is gearing up for the sesquicentennial with a series of commercials that will air on the History Channel in December. These videos will fit perfectly in between Ice Road Truckers, American Pickers, Pawn Stars and various documentaries about UFOs and Hitler’s Bunker. The first video offers an outline of what the war was about:

  • Men and women of the South courageously stood for liberty in the face of insurmountable odds.  Is this meant for black and white southerners?
  • The South peacefully seceded just like the Founding Fathers did in 1776.
  • All the South wanted was to be left alone to govern itself.
  • Lincoln fought to maintain taxes and tariffs.
  • Men like Jackson, Forrest, and Lee fought valiantly and were often outnumbered 5 to 1.  You would think that the Georgia Division would reference military leaders from their home state.

Additional videos include:

As I was going through the videos I realized that this series will make for a very interesting assignment in my Civil War Memory course, which I am teaching next trimester.  I am going to split up the class into groups of two and assign a video to each group.  Their assignment will be to critique the video by consulting relevant recent scholarship on their respective topics.  Students will be responsible for surveying both the strengths and weakness of these videos.  For instance, one of the videos on slavery goes into restrictions on free blacks in states like Indiana as well as offering a few points about the place of slavery in the North and involvement in the international slave trade.   At the same time the video almost completely ignores the place of slavery in the South.  The video on South Carolina’s secession makes no mention of its own Ordinance of Secession.  They can write up an analysis and present it to the rest of the class or make a video response and upload it to YouTube.  Thanks Georgia SCV.

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James Loewen on the Myth of the Lost Cause

This is an interview with James Loewen, who is the co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” About the “Lost Cause” published by the University Press of Mississippi.  I already use most of the documents that are included in this reader, but it is nice to have such a collection available to high school and college instructors.  It will definitely come in handy for my course on Civil War Memory next trimester.

A talk with James W. Loewen from University Press of Mississippi on Vimeo.

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Confederate Reenactors Are Not Nazis, but…

[Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for the link.]

The ongoing debate about Republican candidate for Congress, Rich Iott’s hobby of portraying a Waffen SS soldier, raises a number of interesting questions about what we expect from people who choose to embrace the past through reenacting.  In the case of Iott, there seems to be little patience for the argument that one can reenact the soldier without acknowledging the government for which he fought.  Consider Iott’s attempt to distance himself from Nazi ideology:

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things. I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible.

More recently, Iott had this to say:

I think that it’s an important thing to do because we need to constantly educate people and remind people about the tragedy that happened 70-some years ago…. A lot of time is spent talking to the public, setting up exhibits. It’s a way to keep the public aware of what happened and keep it in their minds so that we don’t forget…. They were doing what they thought was right for their country,” he said. “They were going out to fight what they thought was a bigger evil.

And the reenactment unit in question offers this as a justification, which I quoted in my last post:

Nazi Germany had no problem in recruiting the multitudes of volunteers willing to lay down their lives to ensure a “New and Free Europe”, free of the threat of Communism. National Socialism was seen by many in Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and other eastern European and Balkan countries as the protector of personal freedom and their very way of life, despite the true underlying totalitarian (and quite twisted, in most cases) nature of the movement. Regardless, thousands upon thousands of valiant men died defending their respective countries in the name of a better tomorrow. We salute these idealists; no matter how unsavory the Nazi government was, the front-line soldiers of the Waffen-SS (in particular the foreign volunteers) gave their lives for their loved ones and a basic desire to be free.

Iott’s own justification for his reenactment preferences as well as his organization’s rationale for focusing on this specific unit can be seen in much of the discourse related to Civil War reenacting.  How often have we heard that it’s much easier to find reenactors willing to portray the Confederate soldier even outside of the South?  There is a lingering element of the Lost Cause that romanticizes the Confederate soldier as standing up against an overwhelming enemy as well as the continued insistence that the soldier be judged apart from the stated goals of the government for which he fought.

There is a blatant double-standard at work here between what we are willing to tolerate from Iott and his Nazi fetish and Civil War reenactors.  I’ve been to a number of living historian events and I’ve never witnessed an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a discussion of the tough questions of race and slavery.  Most of what I’ve seen focuses on the experience of battle and camp life.  And for those that do take on such issues we tend to praise for their honesty and bravery.  These rare instances can usually be found at museums and other historical sites.  Do we really expect reenactors from  Nathan B. Forrest’s unit to openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow or the men who reenact in regiments that served with Mahone at the Crater?  When was the last time you heard a Union soldier discuss his racial attitudes after hearing that African Americans were to be recruited into the United States Army?  Even the movie “Glory” needed to bring the racist comments of a few white Union soldiers to a close as the 54th marched through the dunes in preparation for their final assault.

We don’t question these reenactors about their choice of uniform and interpretation and we certainly don’t question their own racial attitudes. From this perspective our collective outrage regarding Iott’s choices make little sense.  Some are emphasizing the distinction between reenacting a Wehrmacht as opposed to a Waffen SS member, but no one has argued convincingly as to why it matters.  As far as I can tell the distorted history of these men quoted above is just as prevalent in our Civil War reenacting community as well as our collective memory of the war as a whole.  For most Civil War enthusiasts the soldiers were apolitical and both sides fought for equally laudable goals.  My guess is that Iott is no more a Nazi sympathizer or an advocate of some of their methods than a Confederate reenactor yearns for the days of slavery.  The controversy not only reflects a blatant double-standard in the way we view historical reenactors, but reflects our continued belief in the exceptional quality of our own civil war.

Finally, I find it curious that most of us don’t for a minute wonder what all of this looks like from the perspective of black Americans.  Perhaps this double-standard is deeply embedded in our continued embrace of a “reconciliationist” and predominantly white memory of the war.

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