The Civil War is Alive and Well in Amsterdam

3757139673_c22e516da5One of the pleasures of spending a week in a place like Amsterdam is having the opportunity to browse the numerous bookstores that dot the city.  I can spend hours in bookstores, especially antiquarian bookstores where the added bonus is the smell of old leather-bound volumes.  There were quite a number of small-independent bookstores and the people who work in them are very helpful.  Unfortunately, they are dealing with the same pressures that independent shops here are currently facing.  Luckily, there were a few stores that stocked English titles so I was able to find and purchase books about the history of the city.  Some might think it a waste of time, but one of the things I enjoy when traveling is spending time in a cafe with a good book on the history of the city in question.  As absorbed as I am with American history, I am always surprised by how easily I can distance myself from it when overseas.  It’s a healthy diversion and one that I should engage in much more often to deal with any lingering vestiges of “American Exceptionalism”.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the selection that you can find in Amsterdam’s bookstores, especially in the area of American history.  In fact, the selection of American history books is actually better compared with what I can find at my local Barnes and Noble.  It would have been somewhat depressing if the only book on the Civil War was the Politically Correct Guide, but there were plenty of new titles to choose from and even a nice selection of new Lincoln titles.

What do the number of bookstores and quality of selection tell us about Dutch culture?  Not exactly sure, so perhaps I need to return at some point to investigate further. :)

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Another Angle on the State of Jones

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about this little controversy as I make my way around the blogosphere and read the comments from various quarters.  While there is no way of getting around the fact that this book has serious interpretive flaws, I have to wonder whether, in the end, the book has some redeeming qualities.  It may be more accurate to suggest that given the state of our popular memory of the South, slavery, race, and the Civil War generally this book may still serve a positive function.

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A Statement About the State of Jones Dispute

[Cross-Posted at Cliopatria]

The ongoing dispute between Victoria Bynum, the author of the well-regarded study, The Free State of Jones (UNC Press, 2001) and Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the authors of the brand new book, The State of Jones (Doubleday, 2009), shows no sign of letting up.  Now that the story has been picked up by  the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, I’ve decided to explain how I came to be involved in this little squabble.  I’ve received a number of emails from interested readers inquiring as to how I got involved, including a few that have taken liberties in assuming some kind of loyalty to one side.  I want to clear the air and offer my own assessment of this unfortunate incident.

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Can a Rape on the Northern Neck Explain the Crater Massacre?

It seems fitting to offer a few thoughts about the Crater on this the 145th anniversary of the battle.  On Monday Brendan Wolfe posted a fascinating entry on the Crater massacre over at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog.  In the process of putting together their entry on the battle, my friend, VFH Intern, and UVA graduate student, Peter Luebke uncovered an important story out of the Northern Neck of Virginia in June 1864.  In the summer of 1864 reports circulated in Richmond newspapers of the raping of a white woman 11 times at the hands of soldiers from the 36th USCT.    Peter rightly inquires whether these newspaper reports help to explain the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers following the battle on July 30.  In citing a recent study by Jason Phillips (a book all of you should read) Peter notes the extent to which the men in Lee’s army exchanged news in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and helped to encourage all kinds of rumors.  The important point here is not whether the rape in fact occurred, but that those who heard of these stories would have given them legitimacy.  At no point does Peter ever suggest a direct causal connection between the stories of rape and the Crater massacre.  I’ve spent the past 5 years reading the letter and diaries of Lee’s men through the summer of 1864 and I have not once come across a specific reference to this incident on the Northern Neck.  That said, I agree with Peter that it’s enough to suggest that to the extent these stories filtered through the ranks they would have contributed to the intensity of the response by Confederates.

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Where are the Archival Sources?

-1Three books have been published on the battle of the Crater over the past two years and I have had the opportunity to review all of them.  I reviewed Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit for the Journal of Southern History and my review of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater is forthcoming at H-Net.  Before I left for Amsterdam I was contacted by Civil War Book Review to see if I might be interested in reviewing Richard Slotkin’s new study, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864.  On a personal note, all three books reference one or more of my own publications on the battle, which, of course, is nice to see.

Both Axelrod and Schmutz are heavy on tactical detail, but quite weak on interpretation, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Slotkin’s book since last summer.  The title alone suggests that the issue of race is central in Slotkin’s analysis and a quick read of the preface confirms it:

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