Ta-Nehisi Coates Interviews Frank Smith

I have become a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s column over at Atlantic Monthly, especially his thoughts about what the Civil War means to a young African American male.  [See here, here, and here] I’ve met Frank Smith a couple of times over the past few years, most recently in 2007, when I interviewed him as part of my research on black memory of the Crater.  Mr. Smith has been involved in D.C. politics over the past few decades, but he is perhaps best known for helping to bring about a monument to United States Colored Troops in the city.  He also established a museum a few blocks from the monument, which explores the history and contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War.

I just love the way they shrug off talk about black Confederates.  We could take issue with Smith’s claim that no free black Southerners managed to join the army, but there is something refreshing about watching these two men discuss a subject that they understand.

Thinking About Hattie McDaniel

I am not too surprised that my students are enjoying Gone With the Wind.  The discussions have been pretty good thus far.  For Monday they must bring in a newspaper article about the movie and share it with the rest of the group.  I am hoping that they come in with articles from different decades so we get a sense of how the movie was received/interpreted at different times.  Today I began the class by playing Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actress in 1939.  I asked my students to think about the sharp contrast between the woman who accepted the award and the character she plays in the movie.  There is something very sad and disturbing about this scene once we acknowledge that McDaniel was given an award for her ability to depict a character that was the product of a racist society – one that satisfied the needs of white America.  I want to know what it was like for Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors to have to depict these characters on film.  To what extent were they aware of the racist stereotypes that lay behind these characters?  Are McDaniel’s tears in her acceptance speech any indication of this realization.  I am so curious about these and other question that I decided to purchase a biography about her.

Have Unit Histories Hit a Brick Wall?

I just finished reading Scott Mingus’s book on the Louisiana Tigers for a review in the journal, Louisiana History.  Mingus’s focus is specifically the Gettysburg Campaign (June-July 1863)  Let me just say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Mingus has a command of the relevant primary sources and the book is well written and should be read by those interested in military history, Louisiana History and, of course, Gettysburg.  I will post the review when it is published, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that will not make it in the review owing to space issues.

It seems to me that unit histories fall into one of two camps.  The first one, and by far the most prominent, is the standard/traditional unit history, which emphasizes the campaigns/battles in which the unit participated.  This should come as no surprise given that this is what most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in.  The focus may be on a unit’s experience in a particular campaign or the war as a whole.  By focusing on one unit the historian is able to provide a level of tactical detail that is usually absent from broader studies.  The best of the bunch may even be able to point out crucial aspects of a particular battle that work to revise our understanding of its outcome and significance.  Mingus’s book fits neatly into this first camp.  He offers the reader a brief history of the unit, beginning with the raising of Company B under the command of Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat in New Orleans in 1861.  Mingus briefly touches on the unit’s early history before the battalion was assigned to the First Louisiana Brigade under the command of brigadier general Harry T. Hays in 1862.  From there it is a quick jump to the spring of 1863 following the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  Mingus does an outstanding job of following the unit on its march north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and covers the unit’s involvement in the battle of Second Winchester in great detail.  It goes without saying that Mingus’s coverage of the “Louisiana Tigers” at Gettysburg will satisfy even the most voracious appetites for tactical detail. Continue reading

A Confederate Invasion?

I‘m behind in my APUS History classes which has forced me to move quickly through the Civil War.  You can imagine how frustrating that is given my interests.  Regardless, I am very particular about the language I use to describe the past and I expect my students to be attentive to such matters as well.  It matters how we refer or describe individuals and events, especially when discussing our Civil War.  I’ve already mentioned my preference for consistently referring to the United States rather than the Union or the North.

In my discussions today I noticed a couple of students looking at me funny whenever I referred to a Confederate invasion of the United States.  Of course, I was referring specifically to the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and Gettysburg Campaign the following summer.  [We could also throw in Jubal Early's little foray in 1864 in as well.]  I inquired into their strange stares and one of the students admitted that he was not used to thinking of the Confederate army as an invading army.  Not surprisingly, this same student had no difficulty coming to terms with an invasion of the South or Confederacy.  A few students embraced Lincoln’s fairly consistent belief that the southern states were in rebellion and therefore still a part of the nation, but they had no qualms with the idea of an invasion.

I guess this has everything to do with the assumption that the Confederacy was simply fighting a defensive war.  But it also goes to some of our more cherished beliefs that draw a sharp distinction between Confederate and United States armies.  For the latter, we immediately think of Grant and Sherman, who did, in fact, engage in aggressive offensives throughout the war.  On the other hand, we do have difficulty acknowledging the same aggressive tendencies in Confederate commanders.  We would rather remember them as leading a gallant defensive effort against overwhelming resources rather than as engaged in a war that would hopefully lead to independence for all slave holding states.  Invasions are carried out by generals like Grant and Sherman, not by Lee and Jackson.  I suspect that my students are dealing with this baggage.  If I had more time or if that comment had come in my elective course on the Civil War I could have utilized any number of primary and secondary sources that shed light on this subject.