Another trimester of my Civil War Memory class has come to an end. This is my second go around with this particular elective and overall I am pleased with the results. This trimester I decided to focus the course on Civil War films. We viewed five full-length movies and numerous small videos that span the spectrum from NPS and American Experience documentaries to YouTube videos. I am confident that my students both enjoyed and profited from the course.
Yesterday we finished viewing the movie, Ride With the Devil, which attempts to capture the chaos of the “Border Wars” in Missouri and Kansas. The movie follows a small band of “Bushwhackers”, including Tobey Maguire (Jake Rodell or “Dutchy”), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), and Simon Baker (George Clyde), along with Jewel (Sue Lee) who plays a young widower. The movie does a pretty good job of exploring the confusion of the guerilla war along with the intersection of ethnicity and shifting loyalties. One of the highlights of the movie is an excellent recreation of William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas.
My favorite character has got to be Daniel Holt, who is a former slave but remains loyal to his former master’s son, George Clyde. Holt’s character goes through the most dramatic transformation throughout the movie, but it is a subtle transformation. You hear very little from Holt at the beginning of the movie. His character sticks close to George and is routinely referred to as “George Clyde’s Nigger.” As the movie progresses Holt emerges from the shadows as a result of George’s leave from the group and his evolving relationship with Rodell. At one point Holt shares his full name with Rodell as well as his own personal story, including his mother’s sale to Texas. One of the most important scenes for this character comes during the Lawrence Raid where Holt confronts a large pile of free blacks who were murdered by the very men he was fighting with. On the trip back to Missouri from Kansas and the loss of George Clyde in battle Holt experiences his first real taste of freedom. A bit later, Holt shares with Rodell that he will never be known as “someone else’s Nigger.”
The changes in Holt’s character take place slowly, but gradually and sets up the viewer for the final scene in the movie. The final sequence follows Rodell, Jewel, and Holt west to start new lives. Rodell confronts Pitt Mathieson one final time in what many anticipate will be a shootout. After allowing Mathieson to take his leave on a suicide run into town Rodell sums up his war experience: “It ain’t right and it ain’t wrong. It just is.” In the final scene Holt take his leave from Rodell for one final time. After tipping his hat to a sleeping Sue Lee and baby the two men say goodbye with a poignant gesture. Holt rides off alone and free and in contrast with Rodell’s previous comment finally adds a morally redeeming quality to the movie. The movie ultimately becomes a story of freedom and emancipation.
The scene is punctuated by Holt taking control of his horse and doffing his hat. No doubt, I am making too much of it, but it reminds me of some of the most popular images of Civil War generals. At that moment Holt embodies the glory that has traditionally been attached to these men.
As many of you know fellow blogger and historian, Brooks Simpson, graciously offered Civil Warriors as a forum for Earl Ijames to share his research on “Colored Confederates”. I agreed to the online debate with Mr. Ijames as it would allow all of us to consider his research and analysis. Prof. Simpson also offered to organize a session at an upcoming academic conference on the subject, which would have opened up the discussion to the wider academic community. Unfortunately, Mr. Ijames has not responded to the offer even after challenging me to “debate” him in public. I can’t say that I am surprised. It is important for the North Carolina Museum of History and North Carolina Office of Archives and History to understand that I will continue to pursue this matter until they take action. Legitimate questions have been raised and Mr. Ijames is either unwilling or incapable of addressing these concerns in a way that conforms to accepted scholarly practice. Continued silence on the part of Deputy Secretary Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow and others must be interpreted as tacit endorsement of Mr. Ijames’s research and his handling of this matter.
Thanks again to Brooks Simpson for offering to organize and host an online debate. I am reposting his update here for your consideration:
It looks as if Earl Ijames has declined to participate in a discussion about his findings concerning black Confederate military service. His response to me indicated that he did not want to share his findings in an online medium: it also indicated that he was a bit uncertain as to what that entailed. I explained to him that perhaps it would be just as well to appear at a professional conference, but he did not reply to that idea.
I’m a bit puzzled by all this. Scholars routinely share conference papers, with footnotes indicating sources, for their colleagues to examine. They also do not stay away from serious professional conferences attended by their peers. It’s one thing to give a talk at the local historical society: it’s quite another to speak at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association.
The task before Mr. Ijames was a simple one. He could have posted a paper outlining his findings and displaying his evidence, or he could have done the same thing at a professional conference. I would have preferred the former, because the audience would be much broader, and that audience would break down the usual divide some bloggers and others harp on all the time. Mr. Ijames was not unwilling to debate Kevin Levin at a forum of his own choosing, but those forums did not lend themselves to the analysis of evidence.
It also struck me as interesting that several people who chose to comment on this invitation in various blogs, including one since taken down, were eager for Mr. Levin to accept Mr. Ijames’s offer to debate, but raised all sorts of questions when Mr. Levin welcomed the opportunity to discuss this matter in an online forum, where the results would be more transparent and widely circulated. Indeed, a few of them declared that an invitation to discuss the matter in an open forum where all could view the proceedings was in fact an effort to prevent such discussion. I will add that Mr. Ijames did not express such reservations as to whether he was being lured into a discussion in a biased forum: he expressed no concerns to me on that score. The people who expressed those reservations have in various forums already expressed their opinions on this issue, although most of them are reluctant to do so under their own name.
I don’t see the problem with an open discussion of this question. I understand Mr. Ijames’s reservations, although I don’t think they are reasonable: they seem to be based upon a notion of blogs as a strange new world with which he’s uncomfortable. As for those who failed to raise any ojections when Mr. Ijames proposed forums of his own choice but who were eager to raise objections to having a discussion in the clear light of day on a blog, well, you’ll have to tell me why they were scared to discuss this issue out in the open and why they attempted to subvert free and open discussion. I suspect Mr. Levin will not hesitate to remind them of this in the future.
As I was perusing the acknowledgments section I was pleasantly surprised to find an entire paragraph devoted to some of her new friends in the Civil War blogosphere:
Besides introducing me to the thoughtful comments of folks who revere the craft of history, various internet blogsites have brought cyberspace debates about race, the Civil War, and the Myth of the Lost Cause right to my desktop. Wading into discussions on Frank Sweet and A.G. Powell’s “Study of Racialism” or Kevin M. Levin’s “Civil War Memory” is not for the faint of heart but always stimulating! My thanks to Robert Moore of “Cenantua” for inviting me to post on his special blogsite “Southern Unionist Chronicles.” Serious bloggers, I have learned, are among the hardest-working and most intellectually astute members of the history profession.
It’s nice to be singled out in an academic study written by a historian of Vikki’s caliber. More importantly, it’s a sign that blogging has a place in the profession and that it can help to advance serious study of the past and bring those debates to the attention of a wide audience. While more scholars are acknowledging the benefits of blogging and other forms of social media it has yet to be accepted as part of the academic mainstream. That will happen as more scholars openly acknowledge its role in their research and professional lives.
For some of my older readers this post may bring back some fond memories of childhood and the Civil War Centennial. Below is a small selection of Civil War cards that was released in 1962 by Topps. Two additional collections of Civil War cards were also released which you can read about here. Of course, I remember collecting baseball cards, but I am pretty sure that this series had been retired long before I took the weekly allowance down to the local candy store. What I find so striking is the scale of violence depicted on some of these cards. I have no doubt that they are responsible for fueling many a young boy’s imagination. Click here for a much larger collection of cards as well as a price list. Enjoy!