“The War Between the States”: Homeschool Style

It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served.  As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer.  The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston.  The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children.  It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.

Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges.  Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity.  Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs.  Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms.  Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.”  Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision.  I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.

The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians.  The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used.  Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.

Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text.  The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters.  Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross.  The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life.  Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples.  Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others.  Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners.  “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer.  Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever.  In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans.  No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further.  I guess it’s all about faith.  There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives.  The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.

The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society.  There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life.  In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times.  This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know.  Here is a revealing passage:

Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South.  It was not in any way perfect or utopian.  In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil.  Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South.  These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.

One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible.  An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified.  For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction.  Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery.  No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity.  Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery.   As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation.  But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:

No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not.  But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished?  In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was.  Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.

Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory.  I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one.  It’s a doozy.  They even offer up a number of 40,000.

They Died at Gettysburg For Our Entertainment

Wish I could be part of the festivities up in Gettysburg this week.  Well, not really.  I read in the newspaper that this year’s reenactment promises to be the “biggest and best so far.” That must mean that there will be more people involved, more noise, and more smoke; it promises to be an entertaining show.  Maybe for next year, instead of going for the biggest and best, organizers can work on making it more realistic.  You want to get me to Gettysburg in early July than give me real suffering.  I’m not asking for much, just something that reflects a reenactor’s sincere interest in wanting to better understand the horror of battle.  Perhaps a blow to the head with the but of a rifle or a minor flesh wound caused by a bee bee that could be extracted with period medical tools.  Now that would point to a sincere commitment to experiencing the past through the other-regarding emotions of empathy and sympathy.

There is precedent for this.  Consider the yearly reenactments of Jesus’s crucifixion that take place in the Philippines.

There is something admirable in their willingness to endure such a severe amount of pain in order to fully embrace what they interpret to be the significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.  For many it is the only way to fully embrace both the historical event of the crucifixion as well as its spiritual import.  By extension one wonders how the experience of the crowd is shaped in comparison with a less realistic reenactment of the crucifixion.  Are they able to identify more closely with the nature of the event being portrayed?  Of course, I am not suggesting that Civil War reenactors try to bring a bit more of the reality of the battlefield to their performance.  What it does bring home for me, however, is how little suffering and sacrifice comes through in reenactments.  Though I’ve only been to a few reenactments I’ve never felt anything close to a feeling of sorrow or even admiration for what the soldiers endured during the Civil War.  It’s always been entertaining and fun for me, in part because I know the reenactor is not suffering in any way, and because of that I’ve always felt just a little uneasy about attending such events.

Have a Happy Gettysburg!

What’s Up With the “M”?

800px-Mahone_MausoleumToday was the perfect day to drive to Petersburg and hang out at the Crater.  I try to get down there at least once a year to recharge the batteries and find those special places where I can lose myself in the past for a few moments.  This trip I decided to walk off the field itself into the wooded areas along the edge of the battlefield.  I walked a few hundred yards along the Confederate right where the 46th and 34th Virginia were located.  The Federal attack managed to occupy about 200 yards along this portion of the battlefield, but what is striking when you walk this area is the incline that they would have had to manage.  In short, it would not have been an easy area to defend given the disorganization in Federal ranks and decisiveness of the Confederate counterattacks beginning at roughly 9am.  Along the Confederate left one is also struck by the uneven terrain and the difficulty that the Ninth Corps would have had in securing the area that was defended primarily by brigades from North Carolina under the command of Col. Lee M. McAfee.  I also explored one of the two “covered ways” that the Ninth Corps used for its attack as well as numerous smaller traverses.  Finally, I followed the “covered way” used by Mahone’s division for their counterattack.  If you walk about 100 yards beyond the crater you will come to a depression where the wood line is extended out.  Find an entrance into the woods and you can walk a few yards before the ground levels out.  It’s of course impossible to know what the area looked like on July 30 given that the battlefield functioned as a golf course in the early twentieth century.  I actually spent so much time exploring the area beyond the perimeter of the field that I almost forgot to make a quick trip around the crater itself.  Along the way I ran into a very nice couple who were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.  I asked if they had any questions and ended up giving them a fairly detailed account of the battle and a bit about what happened on the site after the war.  They were very grateful.

From there I went to Blandford Cemetery which I like to call, “Lost Cause Central”.  I absolutely love walking Blandford.  It’s a beautiful spot and you can usually walk it with very few people around.  I did my usual route, which took me to the Confederate section and William Mahone’s mausoleum.  It’s a very curious resting place.  You can’t really see it in this photograph, but the only indication that this is Mahone’s gravesite is the “M” that is situated inside the star above the door.  Mahone was larger than life and in my mind the most important Virginia politician of the nineteenth century after Thomas Jefferson.  The structure itself is an imposing one and perhaps fitting given Mahone’s importance, but one wonders why there is nothing more than a letter to identify its occupant.  You might say that an “M” is all that would have been needed in this case, much like the simplicity of “Grant” on the monument in Washington, D.C.  Or it could reflect the bitterness and anger that befell Mahone owing to his foray into politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party, which controlled Virginia state politics for four years.

Mahone’s obituaries reflect a deep mistrust from around Virginia that followed him until his death in October 1895.  Much of what I found tried to focus on his military career, but in the end could not fail to notice what many deemed to be the actions of a traitor.  The Richmond Times Dispatch offered a dispassionate overview of Mahone’s military and political career and listed numerous regret notices from Virginia politicians and “resolutions of regret” from local Confederate veterans organizations, including the A. P. Hill Camp, Gray’s Veterans, and the R. E. Lee Camp.  The Norfolk Landmark reported to its readers that Mahone’s death “removes one of the most conspicuous figures in the public life of this State since the war.”  After describing his accomplishments on the battlefield, the paper concluded that Mahone “combined with signal strategic ability a personal bravery and self command” and “enjoyed the confidence and esteem of General Lee.”  Virginia “loses one of her most distinguished sons,” suggested the Portsmouth Star and “as an organizer of forces, he was unquestionably one of the greatest minds of the age.”  North of Richmond, the Fredericksburg Free Lance described Mahone as a “Confederate general who displayed great ability and achieved marked success.”  Even while offering favorable accounts of Mahone, the same newspapers could not resist commenting on his controversial political career.   Another newspaper urged its readers to remember Mahone’s political legacy: “The name of Virginia was dragged in a mire of reproach and became a by-word and a mockery.  From the effects of that political delirium we are just recovering.”  And the Fredericksburg Free Lance predicted that Mahone’s death “will probably bring about the entire union and thorough cooperation of the divided and disorganized Republican party of Virginia.”  Finally, one eulogist noted that, “Few public men have ever had such a loss of friends as Mahone.”

Could the placement of the “M” somehow have been the result of an unspoken compromise between the Mahone family and the community?  Mahone’s remains would be interred at Blandford, but keep the visual reminder to a minimum.  When it comes to trying to understand and/or debate how to remember the Civil War generation there is a tendency to simplify in a way that ignores the complexity of the lives being remembered.   The categories employed tend to be more about how we feel or how we choose to identify with the past.  What I find so interesting about Mahone is that he serves to remind us that not even his own generation could agree on how he ought to be remembered.

To wrap up my trip I met my friend, Emmanuel Dabney, for lunch in Petersburg.  Emmanuel works as an interpreter for the NPS at Petersburg and is currently working on an M.A. in public history.  He is incredibly passionate about historic preservation and hopes to make a career in the NPS.  I predict that Emmanuel is going to be a real force in the preservation world.

Was Michael Jackson a Black Confederate?

Michael Jackson in Confederate KepiIf he was it was only temporary given the drastic changes to the color of his skin.  This photograph was taken on Franklin Street in Richmond in 1980.  My wife and I spent a few hours listening to Michael Jackson’s music on the evening of his death.  It is next to impossible to deny his talent.  Over the past few days I’ve caught snippets of various specials, including a number of interviews with Jackson.  What stands out when not discussing music or dance is an almost childish and simplistic view of the world.  I suspect that his early career left very little time for education and I assume that includes an understanding of American history.  With that in mind it is easy to imagine Jackson not thinking twice about engaging the black community of Richmond in a Confederate kepi.  See the story here.  Thanks for the wonderful music.

Richmond Newspapers Assess the Crater

The Richmond Dispatch included a great deal of commentary that referenced the presence of black soldiers in the battle to both warn its readers of possible dangers and as a means to maintain support for the war effort.  By including such detail readers on the home front were made aware of the dangers that black soldiers represented and, by extension, the threats posed by their own slaves.  According to one editorial, “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long so they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”  The attempt to deny black manhood by assuming they were “stimulated by whiskey” to fight reinforced stereotypes while the reference to “whipping” took on a dual meaning between the battlefield and home front as a way to maintain racial control.   In addition, the North’s use of black troops allowed the newspaper to draw a sharp distinction between “heartless Yankees” who brought themselves to a “barbarous device for adding horrors to the war waged against the South” and “Robert E. Lee, the soldier without reproach, and the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.”  Highlighting Lee’s unblemished moral character highlighted his role as the Confederacy’s best hopes for independence, but also served as a model for the rest of the white South to emulate as the introduction of black troops represented an ominous turn.

The Richmond Examiner not only acknowledged the execution of black Union soldiers, but went a step further and encouraged Mahone to continue the practice in the future:

We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.

Was Grant a Drunk? (Part 3)

“If Grant had a drinking problem, the answer to your question could be that he was willing to sacrifice thousands of more men due to the fact his judgment was impaired by alcohol.”Richard Williams [scroll down for comment]

Thousands of more men compared to what exactly?  Compared to someone who is best remembered as the embodiment of civilized warfare?

Robert E. Lee’s Casualties (1862-1865)

  • Seven Days battles – 20,204
  • Second Manassas – 9,000
  • Sharpsburg – 13,000
  • Chancellorsville – 13,000
  • Gettysburg – 21,000
  • Overland Campaign – 31,000
  • Petersburg Campaign – 28,000

Ulysses S. Grant’s Casualties (1861-1865)

  • Battle of Belmont – 3,100
  • Forts Henry and Donelson – 2,700
  • Shiloh – 13,000
  • Vicksburg – 4,800
  • Chattanooga – 5,800
  • Overland Campaign – 38,000
  • Petersburg Campaign – 42,000

Yesterday I mentioned that beliefs about Grant and alcohol typically have something to do with larger issues.  Williams’s comment is a case in point.  If it can be shown that Grant had a serious enough problem with alcohol it might provide evidence for another long-standing belief, which is that he needlessly sacrificed his men in battle.  The image of “Grant the butcher” provides the perfect foil against Robert E. Lee who embodies the martial characteristics of the Virginia cavalier.  Does anyone doubt that this is exactly who Williams had in mind in his implicit comparison.  As the argument goes Lee fought a traditional war of virtuous generals and civilized tactics while Grant and Sherman ushered in a new era of warfare that anticipated the blood baths of the twentieith century.

My noting Lee’s casualty statistics should not be interpreted as an attack of any kind.  I tend to agree with Gary Gallagher’s analysis of Lee as a modern general who understood the importance of offensive, but costly operations as representing the best strategy given issues related to infrastructure, manpower, and the expectation of the civilian population.  Still, one might conclude that Grant’s casualty figures demonstrate that he did indeed needlessly sacrifice his men in battle.  Of course, you do not have to be an alcoholic to order large numbers of young men to their deaths.  You could just as easily be a Virginia gentleman.

Was Grant a Drunk? (Part 2)

ulysses-grantApparently my last post on Grant has caused some confusion over at Richard Williams’s blog.  Williams interprets my language as an attempt to downplay or ignore those historians who have argued that Grant was an alcoholic or that his fondness for it hampered his leadership on the battlefield.  First, let me be very clear that I have nothing at stake in this debate beyond my interest in Grant as an important historical figure.  Second, I am not a Grant scholar.  What I know is based on having read a number of journal/magazine articles along with a few recent biographies by William McFeely, Jean Edward Smith and especially, Brooks Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph and Adversity, 1822-1865, which has been acknowledged by the historical community as the best of the lot.  [By the way, Joan Waugh also bases her short commentary on this issue on Simpson’s work.]  I’ve learned something from all of these studies.  Williams cites a short essay by Edward Longacre at the History News Network as evidence of Grant’s addiction.  Longacre’s characterization may be right depending on how we define our terms and how we weigh the evidence.  Of course, there is always the danger of presentism in applying modern definitions and accompanying judgments one way or the other.  Even with those concerns the discussion/debate ought to continue since we are dealing with an important individual in American history and how we understand and evaluate Grant’s public career matters.  As for where I stand on the issue right now I will leave you with a recent post by Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if this debate is about much larger issues.   Many take on a defensive posture when it comes to certain conclusions and generalizations because they are connected to much larger assumptions about the war.  Both Grant and Robert E. Lee are useful in this game.  Believing that Grant was an alcoholic fits neatly into that larger image of a dirty/God-less/industrial North that stands in sharp contrast with a peaceful/agrarian South.  Believing that Grant was a drunk reinforces his image as a “butcher” who achieved victory simply by massing overwhelming resources against Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy rather than engaging in sophisticated and complex maneuvers.  Finally, it reinforces the view that the United States army was made up of barbarians whose only goal was to pillage the good people of the South who wanted nothing more than to be left in peace.

The above image of Grant is one of my favorites from the Civil War era.  A number of things come to mind when I look at it, including alcohol, but that constitutes just one fraction of my overall assessment of the man.