Are You A Casual Reader?

Wayne Hsieh shared a short review of his new book written by Richard Hatcher III.  Hatcher offered the following refrain at the end of his review:

While an interesting book, “West Pointers” has been written in a format that will appeal specifically to an academic military readership. This is not for the casual reader, but for one who is interested in and has a working knowledge of the subject.

I find it funny that Hatcher said the same thing about a collection of essays on Civil War soldiers that I contributed to back in 2007.  It’s no big deal, but it is worth asking who and what exactly is a “casual reader”?  I would love to know if Hatcher considers his own excellent study of Wilson’s Creek to be appropriate for casual readers.  What follows is a slightly reworked version of my earlier response to Hatcher.

First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this book will only appeal to a select group of readers.  That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review a book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you.  I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.

Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book.  Given the number of notable Civil War soldiers who graduated West Point and the myriad ways in which the institution figures in our popular memory of the war, wouldn’t a wide audience do well to deepen their understanding?  I read the book and it was a fairly easy read and quite interesting to boot.  While I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, Hsieh offers a very interesting perspective on how the history and culture of West Point shaped the evolution and outcome of the Civil War.  To suggest that only fellow academics will find this book to be of interest implies that there is no room or reason for the general reader to further his/her understanding.  I do not write only for fellow academics.  Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.

A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible.  God knows we desperately need it.


“We Need To Face Life Kind of Like Stonewall Jackson Did”

I thought we all deserved a little inspiration at the end of this long week.  We should all approach our lives as counterfactual and gain solace in knowing that the world may be much better off had we been accidentally struck down by accident.  The message that I took away from this is that had Jackson lived and Lee won at Gettysburg the Confederacy may have succeeded in gaining its independence.  In that case slavery would have continued.  Jackson’s death clearly served God’s plan: “All is well.”  Is that about right?


Reading List on the Aftermath of Battle

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to work one-on-one with seniors who are interested in doing independent work in history.  I am finishing up a project with one of my students on how the Civil War was commemorated here in Charlottesville between 1880 and 1920 and beginning the process of working with a student to formulate a project for next year.  This student wants to explore how Civil War soldiers responded to the horrors of war witnessed in the aftermath of battle.  We still need to nail a few things down, including the question of whether to look at this question over time or in response to one particular battle.

Luckily this student is excited to get started and even broached the idea of doing some reading over the summer.  I’ve decided to assign Drew Faust’s recent book on death and the Civil War, which should provide a helpful context in which to understand the cultural parameters of death in the nineteenth century.  Other studies that I am thinking about include Eric T. Dean’s Shook Over Hell, the section on Fredericksburg’s wounded by George Rable, and Joe Glatthaar’s chapter, “To Slaughter One Another Like Brutes” in General Lee’s Army.

My student is going to spent significant time collecting archival material at UVA, but I want him to do a good amount of reading in the relevant secondary sources.  Obviously, there is plenty of material out there that can be utilized for such a project; however, I am looking for secondary sources (battle/campaign studies, unit histories, biographies) where the historian goes beyond the descriptive and provides some kind of analysis.   If you have something in mind please share it with me even if it is a single book title, journal or magazine essay.  Thanks.


“It’s A Flag Waiting For a Nation”

I wonder what possessed these SCV members to bring their slaves with them to this ceremony.  I don’t really recommend sitting through all of Bob Hurst’s address.


Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.


Why I Don’t Live In the World of What Ifs

Last month I started reading Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South.  While I was excited at the beginning my enthusiasm quickly waned to the point where I haven’t picked it up in about 3 weeks.  Perhaps I will get back to it over the summer, but it doesn’t look good.  I’ve never been enthusiastic about counterfactuals in Civil War history.  I find very little entertainment in their consideration.  While I agree that there may be an epistemological pay off when handled carefully, I suspect that most conversations about counterfactuals in the Civil War are more about freezing time for some selfish purpose than about serious historical understanding about cause and effect.  There is no better example of this than William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

Ulysses S. Grant also pointed out the problems with such an approach in his autobiography.  Here he reflects on the suggestion by some that Confederate Gen. A.S. Johnston’s death at Shiloh sealed their defeat. [Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates]:

I do not question the personal courage of General Johnston, or his ability. But he did not win the distinction predicted for him by many of his friends. He did prove that as a general he was over-estimated. General Beauregard was next in rank to Johnston and succeeded to the command, which he retained to the close of the battle and during the subsequent retreat on Corinth, as well as in the siege of that place. His tactics have been severely criticised by Confederate writers, but I do not believe his fallen chief could have done any better under the circumstances. Some of these critics claim that Shiloh was won when Johnston fell, and that if he had not fallen the army under me would have been annihilated or captured.

Ifs defeated the Confederates at Shiloh. There is little doubt that we would have been disgracefully beaten IF all the shells and bullets fired by us had passed harmlessly over the enemy and IF all of theirs had taken effect. Commanding generals are liable to be killed during engagements; and the fact that when he was shot Johnston was leading a brigade to induce it to make a charge which had been repeatedly ordered, is evidence that there was neither the universal demoralization on our side nor the unbounded confidence on theirs which has been claimed. There was, in fact, no hour during the day when I doubted the eventual defeat of the enemy, although I was disappointed that reinforcements so near at hand did not arrive at an earlier hour.

While Grant was, no doubt, hoping to retain some credit for his victory at Shiloh he rightly points to the difficulty involved in identifying one single factor that explains a battle’s outcome.  It is worth noting that the most famous What Ifs are formulated from a perspective that lead to a Confederate victory.  Gettysburg, of course, looms large: What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg or Confederate General Ewell had advanced and taken Culp’s Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863.  We could just as easily formulate a counterfactual around a Union mistake or defeat to achieve the same end, but that doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.  It’s as if the war was the Confederacy’s to win regardless of the broader sweep of events and the facts on the ground.  We are like children in the scene that Faulkner so eloquently sketches stretching the imagination to bring about a different outcome to a battle and possibly the war.

I don’t fantasize about Confederate victory.  I suspect that many people entertain these stories as a means to imagining the outcome that they wish had prevailed.  That fantasy may be quite common among Civil War enthusiasts, as Faulkner suggests, but it does not necessarily imply anything nefarious about the individual in question.

I have never been attracted to such stories and I suspect that this is why I am having trouble with the Turtledove book.  I guess I can’t imagine a Confederate victory without pondering the question of what would have happened to 4 million slaves as well as the rest of American history.  Since my understanding of the Civil War and its outcome is so wrapped up in the issue of slavery I don’t have the luxury of being able to distinguish between the two.  In the end I identify with the United States because it led to the end of slavery, even if the road to its eventual extinction was rocky and littered with moral landmines.  Without speculating much and given the goals of the Confederate government it is reasonable to conclude that a Confederate victory would have left millions of slaves in bondage.

The other difficulty that I have in playing with such counterfactuals has to do with my own sense of nationalism and love for country.  I find it strange to have to continually respond to critics who take me for some kind of “Lincoln lover” or partisan for the Union cause.  I am not descended from anyone who was alive in this country in the 1860s and as many of you know I came to an interest in the war relatively late.  In other words, there is nothing at stake for me in vindicating the cause of my ancestor or community.  Actually, it’s my own sense of connection to this country as a citizen that prevents me from playing around much with fantasies of Confederate victory.  My impatience with such counterfactuals has everything to do with my own identity as an American and a lingering belief that the right side won that war even if the moral principles dividing the two were not always transparent.  I’ve always found it kind of strange that people who go out of their way to declare their loyalty to this country find it so easy to imagine and even wish for a Confederate victory.  There is something contradictory about this.

That’s about it.  I’ll let you know if I ever finish the Turtledove book.