Obama and Civil War Memory

A few months ago I speculated on how an Obama victory might affect how we remember our Civil War.  I suggested that the election of our first black president (regardless of political affiliation) would present us with an opportunity to remember and commemorate aspects of the war that have traditionally been downplayed, if not ignored entirely.  Obama himself has encouraged this by voicing his admiration for Doris K. Goodwin’s book, along with a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and plans to follow part of the route that Lincoln took in March 1861.  Now we hear that reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts will march in the inaugural parade.  Millions of Americans will learn about the history and significance of these soldiers without any of the distraction associated with so-called black Confederates (Confederate slaves).  I couldn’t be happier for the members of the units who will take part because I know first hand what it means to them.


How I Use A People’s History of the United States

halloween1Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment on yesterday’s post on Howard Zinn.  I am not surprised to find that those of you in the college trenches have not come across the book in any of your department’s courses.  One of you noted that the book did not receive much attention from historians when it was first published.  The lack of attention in the form of a review usually means that the book was not deemed worthy enough for scholarly attention.  Thanks to Chris over at Blog4History who followed up my post with a Google search to get a sense of how often the book is being assigned.  When I commented that I had done a similar search, which resulted in similar results, he thought it was suspicious that I failed to mention it in my post.  I assure you that this was not an attempt on my part to cover up the truth and I encourage you to consider his findings.  As I stated on Chris’s blog, I was simply unsure of what to make of the results.  There are pages and pages of results that include professors and AP teachers who include the book in their syllabi.  The results cover a wide range of subjects from history to  political science to anthropology and span a significant number of years.  We are still left with the question of how often the book is assigned.  But even if we had the answer to that question we would still be no closer to the more important question of how it is used.  Richard Williams simply assumes that its frequency of use is sufficient evidence that it is being used for nefarious purposes.  If one of my students came back with Chris’s Google search and the handful of quotes cited by Richard Williams as evidence of a conspiracy or that the book is being used as an example of the consensus view among professional historians I would give that student a failing grade.  That student would not have done his/her research.  Suggesting that the book has no place in the classroom reflects a narrowness of thought as a teacher, while sweeping generalizations about its place in the academy tells us more about the accuser than it does about what is most likely the case.

Yesterday I alluded to the fact that I use Howard Zinn’s book in my APUS History course.  Let me take just a few minutes to sketch how I use the book and I will leave it to you to decide whether it renders me a dangerous liberal/Marxist who is bent on undoing the social fabric of this country as well as the innocent minds of my students.  One of the central skills that my AP students must master is the ability to craft a historical interpretation that reflects a certain analytical writing style as well as an ability to properly interpret primary sources (the document-based question or DBQ).  This is not an easy skill to teach given the fact that most of my students begin the year believing that history is simply what one reads in a textbook.  As such, it is dry and boring and includes little beyond a set of facts.   One way to teach students what historians do is to provide them with examples – examples that highlight the role of evidence as well as broader assumptions that the historian may bring to the study.  I try to find examples that are entertaining, challenging, and that highlight specific points that need to be made about the pitfalls of historical writing and research.  For example, I’ve used excerpts from U.B. Phillips’s Life and Labor in the Old South to illustrate how historians’ writing at the beginning of the twentieth century were influenced by broader assumptions of race.  Using Charles Beard when discussing the intentions of the Founding Fathers in 1787 can also reveal the importance attached to economic matters that occupied the attention of many Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.  Both Meekins and Williams believe that Zinn’s activism in the 1960s and beyond is reason enough not to use the book, that it courses through his books and renders them useless as interpretation and/or classroom use.  But the fact that the narrative is so over the top at times makes it ideal in pointing out how bias often creeps into our scholarship and that it can often be a detriment to the broader study.  I want my students to understand that their location in place and time will influence how they view the historical record and that this is acceptable within certain parameters since we cannot completely eliminate bias.

I usually use Zinn’s chapter on the colonial period and Revolution, which focuses on class conflict as well as a puzzling analysis of the intentions of the Founding Fathers in their attempt to maintain control as the colonies moved closer to rebellion.  We read the chapter carefully to better understand both the kinds of evidence Zinn utilizes as well as the language he employs.  Zinn’s handling of the evidence provides a number of important lessons for my students.  I have them compare the range of Zinn’s evidence with their textbook and other handouts to better understand the importance of inclusiveness and the dangers of limiting oneself to only certain kinds of evidence.  DBQ writers will often include one or two documents that point in a very different direction compared with the other documents; the goal is to see if the student can acknowledge that primary sources always point to more than one interpretation.   They need to be able to acknowledge, but still make the case for their preferred interpretation.  When it comes to class conflict it is pretty clear that Zinn takes his argument too far, but in other respects he is well within the mainstream of current scholarship.  Zinn’s analysis of the results and response of the gentry in Virginia following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 follows closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan’s seminal work, American Slavery, American Freedom.  I don’t know too many people who would consider Morgan to be a left-wing kook.  A comparative approach between Zinn and other sources can serve as an invaluable lesson for my students as they develop their interpretive skills.

The overall tone of Zinn’s narrative can also be instructive.  Learning how to write with an analytical eye is extremely difficult for many of my students.  They tend to write with an emotional flourish that I assume they bring from their English classes.  My job is to keep them focused on the analysis of sources and additional factual information – the dryer the better for our purposes.   We look closely at a number of passages where Zinn attempts to infer the intentions of the colonial leaders on the eve of the Revolution.  On the one hand, Zinn suggests that as a group they maneuvered themselves into positions such that they would be able to steer the colonies through revolution and remain in positions of power at its conclusion.  At the same time, Zinn asserts that this was not a conscious move on their part, but one that is discernible through the piecing together of their actions.  Much of the language is vague and bordering on psycho-babble.  I ask my students to consider whether the evidence provided is sufficient to draw such conclusions.  We talk about the importance of being able to support every claim as well as the importance of clarity.

As an exercise I ask my students to write a concise 2 to 3-page thesis summary of the Zinn chapter.  They must summarize Zinn’s thesis and explore both his broad assumptions about the period in question as well as the kinds of evidence he utilizes.  Students must also compare Zinn’s approach with other sources, including their textbook.  Finally, they must summarize what they take to be both the chapter’s strengths and weaknesses.  By focusing on the structure of the author’s argument my students can begin to focus more clearly on what they will need to consider when asked to engage in historical interpretation.  This is an assignment that we do throughout the year with a number of different secondary sources.

I would love to know if this is an inappropriate use of Zinn’s A People’s History.  My guess is that my syllabus for this course is included in the search that Chris performed yesterday.  How many other teachers on the high school and college level are using Zinn’s book (as they do every other controversial text) in a responsible manner?

Howard Zinn is not the boogeyman.  Let’s try to wake up from our self-induced nightmares.

If You Don’t Stop, You’ll Go Blind

peopleshistoryzinnUpdate: Looks like Williams has uncovered more evidence in support of the popularity and pervasiveness of A People’s History in college classrooms.  What evidence?  It turns out his publisher says so on its website as well as a writer for the Socialist Work.  And there you have it. My guess is that at this very moment Williams is trolling the internet for even more sources.  Stay tuned…

Update #2 or A Suggestion for R.W.: If you are sincerely interested in the influence of this book in the academy why not compose an email and send it to every historian who teaches in a Virginia college and university.  Ask if they use the book in class and if it is used inquire into how it is used.  You may also want to ask if they have ever come across a colleague who has utilized the book in class.  I would actually be very interested in the results and it would be much more interesting than just a bunch of random quotes pulled from a Google search.

Update #3: R.W. has uncovered even more evidence of Zinn’s popularity among academics.  Check it out. Now he can go to sleep tonight knowing that he has helped to make the world a safer place by exposing this deadly cultural threat.  Sleep tight Richard.


I love checking into Richard Williams’s blog.  There isn’t much historical analysis, but there is a great deal of commentary on the politicization of history and the evil doings of the liberal elite who are more interested in foisting their marxist ideology on their innocent students and the public at large than they are in uncovering the past.  Unfortunately, I never get the sense that Williams actually reads the books and historians he critiques.  Such is the case with his most recent post on the supposed influence and popularity of Howard Zinn in the academy.  The feeling of victimization and fear of cultural and moral decline is palpable.  According to Williams, leftist academics adore Zinn and intentionally ignore its lack of references:

“Rather, he’s [Zinn] praised by other cultural Marxists. As a matter of fact, his book is used in many colleges and universities in America, and some high schools as well.  But, of course, we know that most academics have no bias or agenda. If that’s so, then why would you use a resource that’s assertions cannot be verified by readers and students?”

I assume that Zinn does get support from “cultural Marxists” but notice the leap to the assertion that the book is used in “many” college and high school classrooms.  First, how many professors and high school teachers actually use Zinn’s books in class and, for those who do, how is it being used?  Well, I can speak for myself because I use at least one chapter from A People’s History in my AP classes every year.  I usually pear it up with a similar chapter from Paul Johnson’s A Story of the American People.  It doesn’t take long at all for my students to be able to pick out the numerous problems with Zinn’s book.  The tone of the narrative and narrowness of selection are two points that stand out in my mind.  There is also a self-serving quality to the narrative; if you want to find class conflict in our history you will surely find it in the historical record.  My point is that perhaps Williams should take a step back and ask more serious questions about the frequency of its use and how it is used.  Of course, that would involve moving beyond an overly simplistic set of assumptions that are personally reassuring.  I don’t know one American historian who uses A People’s History to define the state-of-the field in any particular area.   There are a number of reasons why the book remains popular.   You could start with the book being referenced in the movie, “Good Will Hunting” as well as its publication by a popular press.

This is intellectual masturbation at its worst – minus the intellect.

Upcoming Roundtable Talk

9780813124285For those of you in the Fredericksburg area I will be speaking to the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Roundtable this coming Monday evening.  I’ve cut back on roundtable visits for a number of reasons over the past few years, but I’ve enjoyed making the trip up Rt. 20 for this particular engagment for the last three years.  It’s a fairly large group, the dinner is always enjoyable, and the questions are always challenging.  This year my topic is the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Last year I was invited by James I. Robertson and William C. Davis to contribute a chapter on the topic for their Virginia at War Series, which is being published by the University of Kentucky Press.  The third volume on 1863 was just recently published; my essay is slated for the 1865 volume.  I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing on a topic that I knew very little about at the beginning.

You can find information on time, place, and directions on their website.

The Death of Robert E. Lee

RELeeIt’s been a strange experience teaching the history and memory of Lee to my two Civil War Memory sections.  We are going to spend at least 10 days with Lee in preparation for a trip to Richmond, which will take us to a number of sites, including the Lee statue on monument avenue.  What I am finding is a kind of detachment among my students that I did not anticipate.  Even those students who are native to Virginia don’t seem to display the kind of reverence for the general that you might expect.  Today we continued our introductory discussions with an analysis of a number of wartime images as well as a reading of Abram J. Ryan’s poem, “The Sword of Robert E. Lee.”  Ryan was a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia and was considered by many to be the “poet-priest of the Confederacy.”

We spent some time discussing our own needs to venerate the past and cast historical figures as heroes.  We considered the impact of defeat, emancipation, and military occupation as factors, which help to explain the eventual refashioning of the history of the war around Lost Cause principles, with Lee as its centerpiece.

What I am most impressed with is this generation’s ability to ask, “Why Lee?”  In other words, my students are able to ask an objective question that will not threaten any deep-seated emotional connection (one way or the other) to Lee’s memory and legacy.  That itself is an interesting reflection of the memory of the Civil War and one that is no doubt horrifying to certain readers.  As a group, my students don’t see Lee as the embodiment of perfect virtue or a symbol of an age that deserves to be emulated.  In fact, a few of my students were downright disgusted by the idea, especially when it came to the theme of the “Reluctant Warrior.”  I mentioned that one of the most popular stories concerning Lee is his reluctant decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army following Virginia’s secession from the Union.  A few students suggested that Lee’s actions represented outright treason and another student inquired whether we would make an exception for anyone else in American history or even an officer today.  [Just out of curiosity, what would you say to this student and in light of the fact that not all southern graduates of West Point did resign their commissions in favor of their respective states?]  I honestly don’t know how to explain this attitude, although I do believe that it is generational.

Finally, I showed a number of prints of Lee from the war and through the postwar period and ending with some recent samples from the collections of Mort Kunstler, John Paul Strain, and William Maughan – including a few religious themes.  First, most of my students were in stitches and then asked if people actually buy this stuff.  Please keep in mind that these are not little heathens.  Most of them claim a religious affiliation and attend church on a regular or semi-regular basis.  Something has been lost between the image of Lee and their understanding of Christianity.

Please keep in mind that it is not my responsibility as a teacher – nor do I have a vested interest in demanding – that my students believe anything (beyond factual information) about R.E. Lee.  My job is to train my students to better understand why and how we remember the Civil War the way we do.  What is clear to me is that they are approaching this subject from a perspective that reflects both their generation’s interests and priorties as well as their distance from the events of the war itself.  It’s not that they are not interested in the subject; in fact, I can’t think of a historical subject that lights the room up the way the Civil War does.  They simply are not emotionally invested in a certain interpretation of the war as compared to older generations.  I understand that certain people will feel threatened and/or disappointed by what I’ve said here, but there really is no reason for doing so.  It does not necessarily reflect a fundamental shift in values; in other words, this is not a sign of the apocalypse or the end of western civilization as we know it.  It may simply be a reflection of a change in where this generation looks to find certain values at work in their own lives.

When Did the Civil War Start?

Dimitri Rotov seems to be perplexed over what is being billed as the first major event of Virginia’s Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration.  Since I am on the advisory board for Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission I thought I might say a few words about what went into the decision to begin in 2009.  On April 29 the University of Richmond will host a panel of distinguished historians who will discuss “America on the Eve of the Civil War.” This all-day event will bring together a distinguished panel of historians and will be hosted by Ed Ayers.  The format is as follows:

“America on the Eve of the Civil War” brings a fresh perspective on enduring issues. The program will be conducted in an interactive format with speakers from varied perspectives. Akin to news programs like “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press,” speakers will discuss events of 1859 and their effect, limiting themselves only to what would have been known at that time.

The goal is to try and capture as much of the contingency of events as possible.  Topics include the 1860 presidential election, John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry, and the place of Virginia in the South.  The event is free, but you are encouraged to register early.  I have already arranged with conference organizers to live blog the entire event.

I was present at a number of committee discussions that explored the proper scope of the sesquicentennial and it was determined that beginning with 1859 would set the right context for understanding the war years.  Of course, anyone who remembers the centennial celebrations knows that it kicked off in 1861 and made it a point to steer clear of the bigger issues of slavery and race.  The decision reflected the temperament of much of the country and a strong desire to maintain as much consensus as possible at the height of the Cold War and in the wake of desegregation.  Ultimately, it backfired as the Civil Rights Movement kicked into high gear and increasingly came to identify with the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War.  I think it is important to note that while scholars were well on their way to exploring the role that slavery played in the war by the 1960s it had yet to filter into the general public in any noticeable way.  In contrast, organizers are approaching the sesquicentennial from a very different perspective.  First, they hope to be much more inclusive in terms of subjects that deserve proper analysis and recognition.  More importantly, Virginia’s sesquicentennial will be educational and not celebratory.   Finally, the idea that slavery and race are central to understanding both the cause of the war as well as its outcome is no longer worth debating – unless, of course, you operate in certain circles.

It was pretty clear from the meetings that I attended that John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry sets the right tone for the sesquicentennial as a whole.  There is nothing to celebrate or get excited about as in the case of a bloody battle.   Brown’s raid is a crucial event in Virginia’s history that had important ramifications for the nation as it approached the 1860 presidential election and is one that must be understood.  Harpers Ferry also forces those interested to confront the problem of slavery that plagued the nation.  In effect, Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission is saying that the war started here.   At the same time there is the question of when to conclude the sesquicentennial.  Should Virginia acknowledge Appomattox as the end of the war or should it explore both the immediate and long-term effects on the state and the rest of the nation?  These are good questions that deserve to be explored and debated.  I am thankful that my state has put together a commission that is willing and eager to debate such questions.

While I’m at it let me take a moment to plug another event that I am involved with.  Between March 12 – 14 the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar will host a conference titled, “Lincoln and the South.” The three-day event brings together a number of heavyweights in the field, including James McPherson, Ed Ayers, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck, William J. Cooper, Manisha Sinha, and Charles Dew.  Although the conference is organized around panels, there will be no formal papers.  Moderators will engage fellow panelists as well as the audience in discussion.  I couldn’t be more thrilled about this as it is so difficult to keep your eyes open after the first 15 minutes of a formal paper.  I was asked to moderate a discussion for teachers and anyone else interested on the conference theme on Saturday morning over breakfast.  No doubt, I am going to need to practice eating my eggs and biscuit while speaking.

Digging for Robert E. Rodes

robert_e_rodesAt some point in the next few weeks I am going to have an opportunity to rummage through an attic.  You may be thinking to yourself, “big deal”, but what if I were to tell you that the attic is owned by a descendant of Confederate Major General Robert E. Rodes?  It turns out that I happen to work with a descendant of the general, and the family is getting set to clean out an attic that contains a great deal of family documents and artifacts.  A few years ago the family shared with me a very fragile scrapbook that was owned by Rodes’s wife, who supposedly burned all of her husband’s correspondence following his death at the Third Battle of Winchester in  1864.  The scrapbook included a number of newspaper clippings following his death as well as public eulogies.  From what I’ve heard there are boxes filled with all kinds of documents from the Civil War period and beyond.  The family is pretty much convinced that the stories of the burning of his letters are true so there is little confidence that the attic will yield much in this regard.  Still, anything is possible.  It would be nice to find something about or by Rodes, but I am intrigued by other possibilities.  My job will be to help organize the materials and give the family a sense of what they have.  I hope to convince them to donate the collection to the University of Virginia so that it is properly preserved and accessible to researchers.

I know there is a new biography of Rodes by Darrell Collins, but I have yet to read it.  I’ve read a number of positive reviews, but nothing that really considers Collins’s methodoloy or his handling of primary sources.

I will keep you updated.