Schmutz’s Crater

So, it looks like I am reviewing John F. Schmutz’s new book on the Crater for H-Net.  I should apologize for the cheap shot I took the other week when I suggested that he probably took up the project after watching Cold Mountain.  It turns out he has some relatives who fought in the battle.  Schmutz has written a thick book, and apparently he did a pretty good job of surveying the primary and secondary sources.  It’s also nice to see some of my own published work on the Crater in recent bibliographies, including his.  Still, I am a bit concerned after reading the preface.  The author describes the political scene in the 1860s with the phrase, “political correctness run amok.”  Hell, I don’t even know what the phrase means most of the time when it is used to describe current politics, let alone the political culture 140 years ago.  Anyway, I will let you know what I think once I’ve crawled out of this thing.

Civil War Memory: Final Projects

I‘ve got 55 exams to grade as well as end-of-the-trimester comments to write over the next few days.  But for now I am enjoying the final projects from my students who spent this past trimester studying Civil War Memory.  This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me to date.  I had a wonderful group of motivated and curious students who thoroughly embraced the subject and who pushed me every step of the way.  For their final projects I gave them a wide range of options, but encouraged them to come up with their own ideas.  I wanted them to reflect a bit more on some aspect of the course or contribute in some way to the memory of the war.  In the end, their projects covered a broad spectrum.  One student analyzed the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, while another student did a thorough analysis of the Dixie Outfitters website.  Two groups of students made documentaries based on our trip to Richmond while another group did a survey of the school community on issues related to the Civil War and memory.  Two students chose to reflect on how their own memory of the war has evolved over the course of the trimester.  They were quite moving and attest to the continued influence of the Civil War on even the youngest generation.  A couple of students chose to write their own commemorative speeches on some aspect of the war; they were accompanied by slides to give the audience a sense of time and place.  The photos below constitute just a small sample of what was done.

One student decided to do a couple of sculptures.  The one pictured above is titled, “Confederate Bushwhacker Hides from Pro-Union Jayhawker.”  Two students sketched their own idea for a Civil War monument accompanied by an essay which outlines its theme and purpose.  The first one is titled, “Battle of the Wilderness, May 5th -7th, 1864.”  Here is a brief excerpt from this student’s essay:

The monument itself depicts Grant atop his horse with a soldier to his right and another flanking his left side.  The horse is slightly prancing, made nervous by the commotion, fire, and lack of visibility.  Grant sits erect, holding his hat behind him to urge his men to keep moving forward.  There is a bush both directly in front and behind the monument, again giving the sense that these soldiers were fighting in a thicket and  had to maneuver around such obstacles.  Their muskets are raised, ready to fire, and their bayonets are in place and ready for the hand-to-hand combat and bloody fighting that they faced.  The monument is dedicated to the remembrance of Grant and his army, especially the soldiers that sacrificed themselves to make the necessary push forward against Lee’s army, leading the Union to victory.

The next sketch is titled, “Unification, After the War” and features Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts:

In the center, President Abraham Lincoln stands strong and composed.  He is dressed in his dignified black suit along with his unmistakably famous top hat.  I included Lincoln in my monument because he is the reason why the United States survived and was unified after the Civil War.  Before the war, Lincoln stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Therefore, he stands in the middle of General Robert E. Lee and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to emphasize just how right he was.  General is placed to Lincoln’s right on my monument.  He was the heart of the Confederate Army and fought bravely for the South.  His placement besides Lincoln represents the unification of both sides after the war in 1865.  To the left of Lincoln I placed a brave soldier from the 54th Massachusetts commanded by Colonel Robert G. Shaw.  This soldier symbolizes the start of change in America after the war.  Even though laws were not equal for black Americans after the war, victory for the North was the beginning of the transformation of the United States….This monument symbolizes the rebuilding of the United States of America after the war.  Each man represented on this monument had a part in this war; therefore they are equally commemorated on it.

I’ve got some ideas about how I can improve the class if I choose to offer it next year.  For one, I would like to make it much more hands on for students and allow them to work on more detailed projects.  My guess is that this is the first high school elective ever offered on the Civil War and memory.  Now that’s pretty cool.

CFP: Historical Tourism in the American South

n36619244_35369672_232My friend and fellow historian, Karen Cox, has issued a call for papers for a proposed collection of essays on tourism in the American South.  Karen already has a number of historians involved in this project, including yours truly.  I am going to contribute an essay on Arlington House and the evolution of the NPS’s discussion of slavery on the grounds.  Over the past few years I’ve collected some information on this subject so it will be nice to be able to finally do something with it.  Karen is already in contact with a publisher and has been given an advanced contract so it is likely that the collection will see the light of day.  What follows is the CFP as well as Karen’s contact info. if you are interested.  [oh…and I stole the image from K’s Facebook page.]

This is an invitation to submit proposals for essays to join others in a book (now under advance contract) that explores historical tourism in the American South.  Historic sites, for the purposes of this volume, are those places that have been restored and/or adapted for the purpose of preserving some aspect of southern history and interpreting that history to the public. This volume will be divided into four sections each exploring a different aspect of tourism to sites of southern history and memory and proposals should fit into one of the following categories:

People and Places:  will examine individual southerners and the historic sites preserved to tell their story.

War and Remembrance: will examine Revolutionary, Civil War, Spanish-American sites in the region.

Race and Slavery: will examine historic sites that interpret slavery or civil rights.

Landscape and Memory:  will examine tourist sites that are concerned with the physical environment.  Suggestions include cemeteries, Rock City, the Virginia’s Natural Bridge or the Florida Everglades.

Final essays will be 20-25 pages in length and will be accompanied by illustrations.

For consideration, please send a brief CV and a 1-page abstract by April 1, 2009 describing your topic to: Karen L. Cox, Editor, Department of History, UNC Charlotte,

For Richard Williams

I think he needs it.  Here are just a few of my favorite images of Robert E. Lee that I would be proud to have hanging in my office.

[left to right: “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson” by Everett B.D. Julio, “General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va” by L.M.D. Guillaume, “General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862” by Henry A. Ogden, and “Until Sundown” by Don Troiani (this print hangs in my office) – I was unable to find one of my favorites of Lee  by Edward C. Bruce, but you can find a copy of it in Gallagher’s recent book on movies and art, p. 160.]

So, among the other things we disagree about, throw in art.  Good work, Richard.  Do you feel better now?  By the way, what are your favorite images of Lee?  And how about you, dear reader?

Note: I just realized that my preferred images of Lee are military and in the heat of battle. Perhaps, this comes back to the factt that I see Lee’s importance to the Civil War as strictly military. Yes, I am interested in his broader narrative, but in the end his relevance always reduces to his record and performance on the field. I am willing to wager that there are more artistic renditions of Lee outside of his role as general. Has this ever happened with any other general in American history? If not, why?

Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives – Just Not the Lives of Slaves

The other day I came across the “Cotton Campus” website, which is an interactive website for teachers and children on the history of cotton and sponsored by Cotton Inc. As someone interested in how the history of slavery is remembered (and often ignored) I was curious as to how the people who brought us Mary Matalin and James Carville frolicking in bed would handle what is still a very sensitive issue for many.  Needless to say, I was stunned. The only mention of slavery on their website includes a few brief references on their interactive time line.  They mention that “slavery was relied on heavily in the 1800s” and a bit later the emancipation is referenced.  As for their seven pages of lesson plans (pdf files), the word ‘slavery’ is not mentioned once.  Let me give you a sense of what I am talking about.

Consider their fifteen true/false questions: (1) A famous cotton farmer named George Lincoln was called “King Cotton”; (2) In 1607, the first English settlers planted cotton at Jamestown; (3) Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin, a machine that could separate 50 pounds from the seed in one day.

They also give students ideas for “Essay Starters” on various aspects of the history of cotton.

Colonial America: Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.  One of the imported crops the first English settlers planted was cotton, to make clothes.   During the following, 150 years, cotton became an important crop in the Southern colonies, such as Virginia and the Carolinas.  England passed laws that required cotton growers to ship all their cotton to England, where it was manufactured into clothes.  England then sold the clothing in Europe and to North America at high prices.  In defiance of the English law, some cotton was kept within the colonies and used to make clothes called homespun.  Homespun was rough and not very fashionable.  Clothes imported from England were expensive and only fairly wealthy colonists could afford to buy them.  But during the American Revolution patriots wore homespun to their loyalty to the American cause.  Even George Washington wore homespun during the Revolution.

Eli Whitney and Other Inventors of the Late Eighteenth Century: In 1790, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale College, moved from New England to Georgia to become a teacher.  In Georgia, Whitney saw how hard it was to separate cotton fiber from cotton seeds by hand.  It took about 10 hours to get 1 pound of cotton.  To help, Whitney invented a machine, called the cotton gin, that could do the work much faster.  The cotton gin cold produce 50 pounds of cotton fiber in one day.  With the new manufacturing machine, cotton became so important to the American economy that it was called, “King Cotton.”

It’s hard to imagine too many teachers utilizing this website.  On the other hand, it is interesting to see how this company handles its own history.  After all, their entire marketing scheme is built around ideas of comfort and softness.  Their website is as much about creating new customers as it is about education – more of the former, I suspect.

We Are a Nation at War and…

we should behave like one.  By now most of you are aware that the new administration has lifted the ban on photographing the coffins of the Iraq war dead.  I agree with the general outline of the policy and never understood the Bush Administration’s position.  It seemed to me to fall in line with everything else they did to hide the realities of war from the general public, from the president telling us to express our patriotism by going shopping to their failure to include the financial cost of war in their budgets.  One of the things that gives the Civil War its lasting significance is the memory of its dead.  It prevents many of us from looking away and it is the photographs that constitute that visceral connection.  The same can be said for other wars such as WWII and Vietnam.  I fear that in future years we will look past the sacrifices of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead because those connections were not allowed to properly develop in a free society.

Falling in Love With Abraham Lincoln

07In today’s New York Times Opinion Page, Maira Kalman brings her artistic gifts [love her New Yorker covers] to bear on her relationship with Abraham Lincoln.  I’m still trying to figure it out, but I love the way Kalman balances what appears to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of Lincoln’s life and legacy with the innocence of the illustrations and child-like penmanship.  At one point Kalman imagines bringing Lincoln into “my world,” which includes meeting Frida Kahlo, viewing an exhibit of Fred Sandback’s sculptures, and a baked potato.  What do you think?

Teaching Teachers

This has been an extremely busy week for me.  We just finished our second trimester and will give exams through next week.  Luckily, the following week is spring break.  My department is in the process of hiring and, because I am taking over next year as the head of the history department, I am much more involved in the process than in the past.  I am learning quite a bit and even though I don’t consider myself to be the administrative type, I am very excited about taking on a leadership role and having the opportunity to set goals and work with a few new colleagues.  One of things I’ve become very interested in over the past year is the application of social networking/media in the classroom and I hope to make it my top priority.

On top of all of this I took part in two Teaching American History workshops this past week.  Last Friday I went down to South Boston to share my interest in the Civil War and memory and how I apply it in the classroom, and on Thursday I worked with a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on turning points in history.  This is my first experience working with teachers and I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit nervous.  In the end, it was a learning experience and both sessions have given me quite a bit to think about in anticipation for future workshops.  First, I need to be much more sensitive to the challenges that public school history teachers in various parts of the state are currently facing.  It can be something as simple as remembering that my class size (avg. 14) doesn’t conform with most public school classrooms or remembering that some schools divide American history into two years and that a teacher who teaches the modern period may not be as familiar with early American history.  Finally, I need to be much more responsive to the fact that these workshops bring together teachers from all levels.  That said, the particular program that I am working with emphasizes critical historical thinking and advanced understanding of the subject.  It is up to the teachers to think of ways to apply what they’ve learned to their classes. Still, I would do well to think about future presentations with these facts in mind.

In the end, both groups were very engaged and curious about the subject.  They asked insightful questions, challenged one another, as well as their instructor.  One particular moment from last Friday stands out for me.  I was suggesting various ways of teaching the Lost Cause and so I decided to introduce them to the Dixie Outfitters website, which I used this past semester to highlight its continued influence.  They thought the idea was pretty interesting and we had a wonderful discussion about the site’s commentary on the cause of the war as well as the content of the clothing they sell.  One gentleman inquired about the racial/ethnic profile of my school.  I knew exactly where he was going with the question and I felt just a little embarassed that I had not anticipated such a question.  He mentioned that a number of his students buy clothing from this site and did I really expect him to raise this as an issue in class given his school’s racial profile.  The teacher admitted that it would indeed be an interesting way to discuss the continued influence of the war in our culture, but that it would not come without some risk attached.  Added up these little moments have given me a great deal to think about, which I hope to use to improve future presentations.

Overall, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to work with enthusiastic and bright history teachers.  I’ve said it before that we spend so much time exposing what is wrong with our public school system, including teachers gone bad, that we completely ignore those individuals who are in the trenches and doing amazing things with their students.  The one depressing moment came last week in South Boston when I learned that a few of the participants had to leave early to attend meetings in their school districts about whether jobs would be cut for next year.  We don’t live in a society that values its teachers.  If we did a great deal would be different.

I have my concerns about Obama’s new budget, but I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education.  The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.