Top 10 Civil War Blogs

Yesterday I was asked to contribute a guest post for The Best in Blogs of what I consider to be the 10 best Civil War blogs.  It hasn’t been published yet, but here is a preview of the list in no particular order.

1. A. Lincoln Blog [] Brian Dirck is a well-respected Lincoln scholar who uses his blog to share both his ongoing research projects as well as commentary on Lincoln and popular culture.  His blog has been quite insightful this year as the nation commemorates Lincoln’s Bicentennial.

2. Cenantua’s Blog [] Robert’s Moore’s site is by far the most intellectually stimulating blog in the Civil War blogosphere. He reminds us that Southern heritage and memory is much bigger and more interesting than the narrow contours of the Lost Cause.

3. Civil War Books and Authors [] Stay on top of the latest in Civil War publishing with Drew Wagenhoffer’s invaluable blog.  Drew not only reviews titles from popular and scholarly publishers, but also reviews a wide range of self-published studies that often go unnoticed.

4. Civil War Bookshelf [] Dimitri Rotov’s blog is one of the oldest and while I don’t always agree with his commentary his posts are always thoughtful and sure to lead to a broader discussion across the Civil War blogosphere.  Hot topics include the state of Civil War publishing, George McClellan, and his somewhat curious disdain for what he calls the “Centennialist School” of history.

5. Civil Warriors [] Civil Warriors brings together three of the top historians in the field, including Mark Grimsley, Ethan Rafuse, and Brooks Simpson.  All three offer insight into their respective areas of interest as well as the process of serious scholarly research.

6. My Year of Living Rangerously [] Have you ever wanted to work for the National Park Service on a Civil War battlefield?  The next best thing to being one might be to follow Mannie Gentile, who works as a seasonal ranger at the Antietam National Battlefield Park.   Mannie’s passion for the Civil War and love of nature make it clear as to why our battlefields must be preserved for future generations.

7. Renegade South [] Although a relatively new blog, Victoria Bynum has easily created her own niche in the Civil War blogosphere.  Renegade South is an extension of her own research and published work, most notably, The Free State of Jones and Unruly Women, which explore Southern dissent during the Civil War.

8. Rantings of a Civil War Historian [] Eric Wittenberg’s interest focus mainly on Civil War cavalry and is one of the more prolific authors currently on the scene.  His site offers commentary on ongoing research projects as well as short biographical sketches of long lost cavalry officers.  Throw in a good rant every so often and you’ve got yourself an entertaining blog.

9. Bull Runnings [] Harry Smeltzer’s site is essentially an information hub for those interested in the First Battle of Manassas.  In addition to cataloging primary sources from the War of the Rebellion and Southern Historical Society Papers, Harry also offers commentary on a wide range of Civil War related topics.

10. Weirding the Civil War []  This site is somewhat experimental in that it is being used by a group of historians who are preparing essays for publication on narrow topics that challenge aspects of the standard Civil War narrative.  It’s a wonderful example of how blogs can be used by historians to communicate with one another as well as the general public.


“The History Boys”

the_history_boysLast night I made my acting debut in the Tony Award winning play, “The History Boys.”  It’s the story of a small group of pupils in a British school who are being groomed for admission to Oxford and Cambridge.  The story follows this small group as they navigate through two very different teaching philosophies as well as their own sexuality.  Those of you who have seen the movie are aware of the mature content and may even be surprised that a high school has allowed it to be performed at all.  I am proud to say that I work in a school that strives to address controversial material in a mature and educational manner.  Needless to say, the weeks rehearsing have been challenging given the dialog between student and teacher, though in the end I think we’ve all learned something from one another about this thing called education.

Two scenes in particular stand out to me given my interest in historical memory.  The first takes place in a full classroom and the second between a teacher and student:

Scene 1

Scripps: But it’s all true.

Irwin: What has that got to do with it?  What has that got to do with anything?  Let’s go back to 1914 and I’ll put you a different case.  Try this for size.  Germany does not want war and if there is an arms race it is Britain who is leading it.  Though there’s no reason why we should want war.  Nothing in it for us.  Better stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings.  These are facts.  Why do we not care to acknowledge them?  The cattle, the body count.  We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died.  A photograph on every mantelpiece.  And all this mourning has veiled the truth.  It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember.  Because you should realise that so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something that by commemorating it.

Scene 2

Posner: Hodge?

Hector: Mmm – the important thing is that he has a name.  Say Hardy is writing about the Zulu Wars or later the Boer War possibly, these were the first campaigns when soldiers…or common soldiers…were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.  Before this, soldiers…private soldiers anyway, were all unknown soldiers, and so far from being revered there was a firm in the nineteenth century, in Yorkshire of course, which swept up their bones from the battlefield of Europe in order to grind them into fertiliser.  So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer boy.  Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name.


Ebay’s Civil War

[Hat Tip to Mark Snell. There is still time to register for Mark’s summer seminar on Race and Ethnicity in the Civil War.]


Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln

Of course, most of you know that Burlingame recently published his massive 2-volume study of Abraham Lincoln.  This talk was recorded at Illinois College on March 26, 2009.  Click through the video to get the rest of his talk.  In part 3 Burlingame suggests that Lincoln was assassinated by John W. Booth as a result of his suggestion that some blacks should be given the right to vote.  He goes on to suggest that Lincoln’s assassiantion should be understood as part of a larger narrative that includes Martin L. King, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwermer and other civil rights advocates.  I think he is right about the first point, but I’m not sure I buy the second.  Regardless, Burlingame is one of the more thoughtful Lincoln scholars and you are sure to learn something.


Southern Senators in 1951


From Life


Session 4 “Predictions for the Election of 1860”

Elizabeth Varon, Nelson Lankford, Jean Baker, Daniel Crofts

Context: The stability of a two-party system rested on shaky ground surrounding the nature of sovereignty.  This gave rise to fears of secession and disunion that continued to escalate through the 1850s.  By the mid-1850s the Whig Party became isolated over the issue of slavery – to survive they would have had to come out as a pro-slavery party.  Whigs suffered from the loss of notable leaders (Webster and Clay) and they also lose some of their economic issues.  Once they lose that focus they are unable to maintain their structure on a national level.  The Democrats were the dominant national party, though the Buchanan Administration had been discredited owing to the prez’s weakness.  The Whigs also suffered from the influx in new immigrants who aligned themselves to the Democratic Party – promised to treat them civilly for political purposes.  This led to the formation of the American or Know-Nothing Party which focused on the dangers of immigration and the threat to national identity.  By 1856 the Democratic Party appeared to be the party of the future.  The Dems controlled both the House and the Senate as well as the Supreme Court.  They have everything going their way.  The problem is that the Party pledged itself to protect slavery.  Kansas-Nebraska, however, presented a number of problems because the various factions in the party failed to support it.  The leading Democrat in Illinois ended up in direct conflict with Buchanan.

This opened up an opportunity for a new political party.  Republican Party benefited from the caning of Charles Sumner, which occured a few weeks before their convention. – Preston Brooks helped to create the Republican Party.   The pervasiveness of conspiracies may have also benefited the early Republican Party given its assumptions about the ultimate goals of slaveowners.  The Republican Party in 1856 looked to ending the control of the federal government by slaveowners.  The 1856 election gave Republicans a great deal to be hopeful about.  Republicans built a consensus around what they took to be a bloodless policy: they want to simply stop the spread of slavery west.  They were committed to no longer making concessions to slaveholders.  This non-expansion of slavery was heavily charged for slaveholders who believed that slavery could be utilized along a wide spectrum of landscapes.

Dred Scott: The decision was complicated in terms of who signed which part of it.  Taney and the majority came down on the same side in ruling that he could not sue since he was not a citizen – blacks had no rights that whites had to support.  This meant that free blacks could be sent back into slavery.  For Republicans the sticking point was that Congress had no power to legislate on slavery and worked to support that there was a conspiracy.  Republicans would have assumed tight control of the federal government which they needed to counteract.  By Dred Scott the Republican Party had secured itslef as a solid regional party.  Northern states command 170 electoral votes, however, Republicans must defend themselves from charges that they want to steer the nation down the road to emancipation.

Abraham Lincoln emerged out of a series of debates with Douglass.  Republican managers targeted three states in the 1860 election; one of them was Illinois.  John Brown’s raid prevented Upper South residual Whigs from communicating with Republicans.

Democrats need to hold on to states won in 1856.  Jean Baker thinks that Dems should have nominated a northern Democrat.  In 1857 Jefferson Davis argued that the Dems would never win unless they run a northerner like Franklin Pierce.  He have been able to save Penn. Their biggest problem is that the most popular Dem was hated in the South.  However, if you don’t nominate him they were likely not to hold the necessary states.

Republicans needed to deal successfully with the legacy of Brown and the image of an “Irrepressile Conflict”.  Republicans need to present themselves as a conservative party.

Predictions: It can only be answered regionally.  There is a middle group of states that are uncertain, but interested in the possibilities of a border state confederacy (KY, MO, DE – Va is the big player). People in the South will vote Democrat.  If Republicans win Ill, IN, and PA they win.  Seward was still the front-runner.  It’s not clear that Lincoln will be the nominee though Lincoln is working hard to correct this by giving speeches and waiting in the wings.

Sorry for the poor summary but my hands are tired and I am exhausted. 🙂


Session 3 “Making Sense of John Brown’s Raid”

David Blight, David Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker

It is interesting that we are commemorating the life of someone who committed treason.  Research is now being done on just how many blacks from Jefferson County were involved in one way or the other – we must move beyond the standard number of 5.  New research suggests that it might have been around 300.  John Brown’s plan was a military disaster and we must account for why blacks in the region were so suspicious of him.  According to Blight many slaves were suspicious of their would-be friends.  Brown had not really laid the groundwork for what was needed in a successful raid at H.F.  There were 16,000 slaves in the six counties around H.F.  In areas where there were large black families men were very cautious so as not to risk their families – this may explain their caution in response of Brown.  Most people, including Douglass viewed it as a “suicide mission.”  We must see the Brown raid as the culmination of agitation on the part of the black community throughout the 1850s; it was not an aberration given the number of blacks that escaped to the north.  Many blacks debated the appropriateness of the use of violence to bring about emancipation.  Brown was extremely conscious of a long history of black resistance that extended into Jamaica.  Three slave rebellions took place in Va., but they all failed.  So, what lessons did Brown gleen from these failed attempts?  In 1848 Brown paid to have two poems on black resistance published; he also reflected on the failed rebellons of Spartacus.

Unlike many abolitionists, Brown was not condescending to blacks.  He attended their churches and treated them as equals – he adhered to a God that was omnipotent, omnipresent, and morally just.  Brown viewed himself as an agent of that God – bounded by his religious sensibilities.  To grasp what he did at H.F. we must get our heads around B’s Calvinism:  innate depravity, providential signs, and predestination.  Brown did not enjoy the prosperity that many white northerners enjoyed during the Jacksonian Period.  This may have driven him further into the realm of religion and emancipation.

“Bleeding Kansas”: Only selected members of pro-slavery families at Pottawatomie Creek.  It must be seen as part of the immense violence that took place in Kansas at that time.  It was an act of war in a vigilante war.  The PM and the battles that flowed from it is where Brown’s reputation begins to grow back East.  Brown believed that slavery must be understood as a declaration of war against blacks.  Slavery was not an abstraction for Brown.  His repulsion goes back to his early life when he watched a slave being beaten with a shovel as well as his disgust over how free blacks were treated in the North.  Brown probably spent more time with blacks than with white abolitionists.

Harper’s Ferry: John Brown created a conspiracy, including the raising of money and recruits, though he was very secret about it.  Very few people were brought into Brown’s circle; most people had very little understanding of Brown’s intentions.  Brown hoped to recruit hundreds for the expedition, but ultimately only 19 joined.  It’s not clear what Brown intended to bring about.  It was not like Gabriel and Vessey in that they involved thousands, Brown’s model was Nat Turner – begin with a slave rebellion and hope that it spreads.  Why did Va permit him to make his statements and hold a trial?  Henry Wise was an admirer of Brown.  The trial reflects Virginia’s committment to the rule of law, even in these extreme circumstances.  Brown’s accounts were printed because the reporters understood implicity that most of their Southern readers would think Brown insane.  In the end, Va’s decision to hold a public trial allowed Brown to make his case and began the process of martyrdom – this is how Brown gained victory from failure.

Reaction: Initial response in both North and South was negative.  At first the transcendentalists publicized Brown’s actions, which was soon taken up by some in the abolitionist community.  Most important reaction from across the north was the religious response – it became an “American crucifixion” for many northerners.  Blacks in the North declared him to be a hero from the beginning as well as within the abolitionists.  Unionists and conservatives held meetings to try to prove to the South that they did not support him.  Republicans also tried to distance themselves from Brown.  Most northern town rang their bells to mark his hanging; they condemned the act, but used it to shine the light on slavery.  In a matter of weeks white northerners sympathized with Brown owing to the language that was marshaled to describe his actions as well as his behavior in the face of the gallows.

No surprise that white Southerners viewed him as insane who had perverted Christianity.  It was the height of un-Christian behavior.  Southerners used Brown to demonstrate what most Northerners wanted to do to them.  Brown was thinking about the timing of the raid in light of the upcoming presidential election.  According to Blight he wanted to hold it earlier.



I doubt that there are 2,000 people in attendance, but this is still a significant turnout.  The panelists from the two morning sessions are now taking questions from the audience.  I’ve met a number of blog readers and had a chance to talk with Andrew Dupstadt (Civil War Navy Blog) who is here with a contingent from North Carolina who are organizing their sesquicentennial.  Both sessions have been informative and the verdict of the participants thus far suggests that the format is working.  A wide range of issues have been raised to give the audience a sense of the state of the Union in 1859.

No surprise that this is an overwhelmingly white audience and if I were to guess the average age is somewhere in the mid-50s.  Well, it is a workday.  The overall tone is markedly different from that of the centennial.  I had a chance to talk with David Blight about this contrast during the last break.  Panelists have analyzed its importance with a certain comfort and ease that would have been unheard of just a few decades ago.  Walter Johnson just referenced the fact that a few slaveholders were, in fact, black.  There is no celebratory tone in this hallway.  This is an audience that has come to learn about American history in all of its complexity.  Given the constant Online banter that emanate from certain quarters about disengaged scholars I can only wish that you were sitting here today.  I am looking at eight of the top scholars engaging and arena full of people.  What a treat.

I can’t think of a better way of opening Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.