This is the second in my series of “Best of” posts that will be shared throughout November in recognition of the four-year anniversary of this blog. The following post appeared on March 23, 2006 and is titled “Why the Civil War Matters”. This post was formally presented at my school as part of the 2006 Virginia Festival of the Book and is one of my favorite pieces of writing.
Americans were exuberant in 1961 at the prospect of the upcoming Civil War Centennial celebrations. It was a chance to unfurl Confederate battle flags and ponder the character and heroism of such iconic figures as Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Families could watch as re-enactors brought to life memorable battles such as First Manassas and Gettysburg where lessons could be taught about the common bonds of bravery and patriotism that animated the men on both sides. There would be no enemies on the battlefields of the 1960’s.
I had a wonderful time in Louisville at the SHA. It’s a wonderful opportunity to listen to thoughtful presentations and meet up with old friends. When I have time I will share some thoughts about one of the panels on Civil War memory and the Sesquicentennial. Of course, one of the best features of the conference is the book room, which features most of the major publishers that deal in Civil War and Southern history. Most of the books are available at a significant discount. Here is what I picked up this year:
So, just as I was finishing packing for my trip to Louisville tomorrow when I received a phone call asking me to moderate a panel on Saturday morning. I will be filling in for Gary Gallagher on a session titled, “The Public Presentation and Interpretation of Slavery and Slave Resistance: A Roundtable Discussion.” It’s a topic that I am very interested in and I was more than happy to accept the request. I was pleased to see John Latschar’s name as one of the panelists, but unfortunately he has decided not to attend. That’s too bad. It would have given me the opportunity to thank him for all of his hard work at Gettysburg. I’ve read through plenty of commentary over the past week by people who have tried to minimize Latschar’s accomplishments at Gettysburg, but all you have to do is listen to those on the inside and you will understand just how important he was in helping to bring about some of the most significant to the physical landscape and interpretation at the park. Who better to talk about the importance of addressing difficult topics such as slavery at our Civil War battlefields and other public sites than John Latschar. Peter Carmichael will be filling in for Latschar.
With the publication of three books on the battle of the Crater in the past two years, one might reasonably ask if there is a need for yet another. These previous treatments (written mainly by non-academic historians) have collectively addressed the tactical complexity of the battle, including the early morning explosion of 8,000 pounds of black powder under a Confederate salient and they have provided an exhaustive account of the close-quarter combat and blood-letting that ensued for close to eight hours on a battlefield that was ripped open by the initial blast. Such a focus is a staple of traditional military history. But as much as we have learned about the nature of combat in the trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 there are key aspects of this battle that have not been sufficiently addressed by the previous literature.
The following post originally appeared on December 12, 2005
Being Ed Ayers
In the most recent issue of North and South there is a very interesting exchange between Ed Ayers and a letter to the editor in the Crossfire section. The writer responded to Ayers’s article, “What Caused the Civil War” which appeared in a previous issue (Vol. 8, #5); the article is essentially a reprint from his most recent book of essays titled, What Caused the Civil War: Reflections on the South and Southern History. I think Ayers is one of the more talented historians writing today.I’ve read through his Pulitzer-Prize nominated book, The Promise of the New South so many times that it has a rubber band around it to keep it together.The only other book in my library in that condition is Plato’s Republic.More recently Ayers won the Bancroft Prize for In the Presence of Mine Enemies which is based on his Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia.
Not too long ago I commented on a popular homeschooling textbook on the Civil War by John J. Dwyer, titled, The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War. This is the video promo for that textbook. It is a truly remarkable modern day Lost Cause inspired account of the war. It essentially pits a God-fearing South against a Godless and barbaric North that accomplished nothing during the war except for the terrorizing and destroying of southern homes and farms. A wonderful example of mental child abuse pure and simple.
Like many of you I’ve read John Keegan’s Face of Battle (1976) and can appreciate the contribution it made to the historiography of military history and its influence on countless Civil War historians who have written about the experience of the common soldier. Other than that, however, I haven’t read much of Keegan’s scholarship. I’m just not that well read in military history outside of the Civil War. I have to admit that I was just a bit excited about Keegan’s new military synthesis of the Civil War until I came across James McPherson’s review. This is a pretty tough review as McPherson reviews go. The mistakes cited by McPherson are that much more damaging given that Keegan is seen by many as an expert on geostrategic analysis. Even the characterizations of Grant, Sherman, Lee, and Jackson seem to be quite weak. Why do I have a feeling that we will see this book remaindered within a year.