Professional v. Amateur: My Spin

Recent posts by Brooks Simpson, Eric Wittenberg, and J. David Petruzzi have got me thinking about this distinction between professional and amateur historians.  I may be wrong about this, but the Civil War may be the only sub-field of historical studies where this is an issue.  Three posts on this topic in a week suggests that something is in the air.  I actually don’t have much to say, but I wanted to take this opportunity to address both Eric’s question of another advanced degree and the above-mentioned distinction.  First, I agree entirely with Brooks’s carving of the terrain:

If there’s a meaningful difference, it is between academic historians (those housed in research or teaching institutions) and non-academic historians, and that difference is understood in part by how these people are funded, paid, and rewarded.

If the distinction does any work at all it is in allowing us to make practical distinctions rather than generalizations about the quality of the work produced by those on either side.  I’ve always considered myself to be an amateur/non-academic historian and a professional teacher.  I am first and foremost a high school history teacher.  I am paid and rewarded in this capacity and it provides me with a great deal of what goes into my own understanding of self.  I can imagine giving up my writing and research, but find it almost impossible to imagine myself outside the field of education.

I decided to pursue an M.A. degree in history at the University of Richmond in 2002 after I failed to gain entrance into a well-regarded PhD program.   My ego was a bit bruised and I am even willing to admit that it was over the superficial issue of having the “PhD” next to my name.  At that point I had already published a few book reviews in the Washington Times and North and South magazine along with a lengthy article in a local historical society journal.  Once I came out of my self-induced funk, however, I realized that the issue was not the rank but the additional opportunity that an advanced degree might offer me in terms of interaction and publishing.  I pursued the M.A. degree to get to a certain place where I could interact with people who share my specific interests and who actively pursue answers to specific questions that I care about.  If it turned out that an M.A. was not sufficient for my needs I might have gone back and taken the plunge.  As it turned out the M.A has allowed me to function in a way that I find rewarding on an intellectual level.

Whether my friends and other acquaintances that I’ve come into contact with through publishing and conferences consider me to be an academic/amateur or professional historian doesn’t matter much to me at all.  I too hope that my published work stands or falls on the merits of the research and the quality of the argument.


Remembering George Tindall

Some of you may be aware that historian George Tindall died last month at age 85.  Tindall spent his career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The Raleigh News & Observer recently included an article that included a few comments by Cliopatria founder Ralph Luker:

Tindall was regarded, along with the late C. Vann Woodward (a UNC-CH graduate) and John Hope Franklin of Duke University, as part of the holy trinity of 20th-century Southern historians.  “He, Franklin and Vann Woodward were the sources of a renaissance of Southern history that we are still benefiting from,” said Ralph Luker, a retired historian living in Atlanta.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Tindall, Woodward and Franklin took Southern history out of the magnolia-scented Lost Cause legends of the Civil War and administered the smelling salts of reality.  “All three insisted that Southern history had to be written in black and white,” [Ralph] Luker said. “Prior to their generation, Southern history had been written as a history of white people. That produced such a badly skewed and romantic vision of the South that we can look back on it with amusement and sadness.”

Tindall, a native of Greenville, S.C., taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 32 years before retiring in 1990. He was an elegant gentleman with a bow tie and a wry sense of humor who would sometimes ride his bicycle to class. The historians trained by Tindall are now the pillars of distinguished history departments across the South.  In his personal life, Tindall was ahead of his time. In the 1950s he made sure that dinners were held in hotels where white and black historians could eat together, and he sent his children to the first integrated day-care center in Chapel Hill.

His books are living legacies. His most famous, “The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945,” is an 807-page masterpiece published in 1967. It will likely remain the authoritative history of an era that saw the South pull itself out of rural poverty and wrestle with the great questions of race.

I have to admit that while I have a copy of The Emergence of the New South I’ve never actually read more than a few short sections.  A few days ago a post of mine which referenced a short essay by Mark Grimsley on recent interpretations of Sherman’s March led to a spirited discussion with a reader.  The reader’s comments implied that these revisions were authored by Northern historians who fail to sympathize with the suffering, destruction, rape, and pillage that Sherman’s hordes brought to Georgia.   Today Mark was kind enough to weigh in on the discussion by noting that he is a white southerner from North Carolina.  George Tindall grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and both the late C. Vann Woodward and Ed Ayers grew up in the South.  I could go on and on.

The important point to remember is that those most responsible for challenging the Lost Cause stories of the Civil War and the “Old South” are a product of the South.


The Crooked Road To Civil War

I am currently making my way through Nelson Lankford’s new book Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road To Civil War, 1861.  The book is essentially a micro-study of the days following Fort Sumter.  In some ways the book can be seen as a companion volume to his previous book Richmond Burning, which took a similar look at the final days of the Confederate capital.  [Click here for my H-Net review of this book.]  The first few chapters set the stage for the incident for Fort Sumter with chapters 6 through 17 focusing on the period between April 12 – 25.  For those of you already familiar with this period there is very little that is new.  What is impressive, however, is the extent to which Lankford is able to integrate recent scholarship on the secession winter and the Upper South by Daniel Crofts, William Freehling, Charles Dew, and William Link.  And he manages to do this within a narrative that is beautifully written.  There is nothing worse than reading books geared to the general public that are written by people who have no sense of the relevant historiography.  It makes for poor history and all too often it reinforces long-standing assumptions that can no longer be justified.  Yes, it turns out that good history is revisionist in the sense that we continually add to our understanding and in turn hopefully understand better.

Like his earlier study, Lankford relies heavily on contingency.  He places his reader in a narrative space where they can appreciate the role that perception played in the continually changing political shifts and subtle misperceptions in Virginia in the days leading up to and following Sumter.  In doing so Lankford reminds us that Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and even the establishment of the new Confederate government in February 1861 did not necessarily lead to war.   

This is the story of the unfolding of those events as Americans experienced them, not knowing the outcome any more than we can know the outcome of events in our own day before they happen.  Long-running discord over slavery and sectional rights prepared the way.  That antipathy long predated Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and all the other actors of 1861.  Perhaps by then the war could not have been avoided.  But the particular way that it began was in the hands of individuals, not impersonal, irresistible historical forces. (p. 7)

Lankford actually takes this one step further as he argues that even the bombardment at Sumter did not necessarily have to end in war:

"And the war came."  So Lincoln would famously reflect in his second inaugural address, tersely eliding complexities of cause and motive.  But that cryptic remark four years later conflated events terribly.  In April 1861, no one could see where the furious cannonade woud lead.  For several tumultuous weeks, in fact, many Americans still hoped and worked to avert a full-scale civil war.  For all the hostility, noise, and anger released in Charleston Harbor, the shape of the prospective disunion of the country, like Edmund Ruffin’s fate, still lay hidden in the unknowable future. (p. 83)

Lankford’s language clearly echoes recent work by Ed Ayers based on his Valley of the Shadow project. I highly recommend this book.  Even for those of you who are familiar with this time period I am confident that you will enjoy it.   

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You’ve Been Warned

Tomorrow I start my spring elective course on women’s history.  I am very excited and also a bit nervous.  For the past four years I’ve offered slightly different versions of a course on the Civil War.  This year I wanted to try something new and give myself a little challenge because it’s important for teachers to see themselves as students every so often.  I have 11 girls registered for the course, but unfortunately no boys.  Right off the bat it looks like a case of gender construction at work: young men don’t take courses about women’s history.  While we lose valuable perspective in not having any boys in the class I am looking forward to the opportunity to think through questions about how assumptions about gender have changed and what it means to do women’s history.

I’ve ordered an excellent textbook that includes a nice collection of primary sources as well as Betty Friedan’s classic 1963 study The Feminine Mystique.  We are going to start off with some of the basics, including the distinction between sex/biology and gender construction and then we will jump right in and read the first chapter of Friedan and an examination of the "problem that has no name."  My guess is that most high school students are not introduced to a mature reading of women’s history especially if they are using even slightly outdated textbooks.  My AP students who are using Eric Foner’s new text are getting a heavy dose and he does an excellent job integrating this sub-theme into the broader narrative.  My regular survey courses use the most recent edition of the standard text The American Pageant originally authored by Thomas Bailey.  In the first few editions Bailey devoted 21 out of 1,000 pages to women and managed to mention only 48 by name.  Of those 48 seven were not American women and an additional six were mentioned only in the context of their relationships to presidents.  Eleanor Roosevelt was not mentioned at all along with Margaret Sanger and Jane Addams.  And when Bailey described women who demanded their right to control their own property, retain custody of their children or call for the right to vote he characterized them as a "belligerent bevy of female agitators" and "fiery females." (p. 366).  When it came to male "agitators" like Thomas Jefferson Bailey described him as a "brilliant writer" and reform President Woodrow Wilson as a "moving orator" and "idealist."   p. 115 and p. 730). 

One of the reasons I am so interested in gender/women’s history is that it has so much in common with the historiography of race and slavery.  Like African-American history, women’s history is relatively new and I suspect that this has much to do with the increase in the number of programs of study introduced into colleges and universities and the increase in the number of women and African-American scholars that have entered the job market since the mid-1960’s.  This also raises interesting questions about power and hierarchy.  It is not surprising that most Americans still have a distorted view of slavery and race given that most histories of the histories were written by white men up until relatively recently.  The same can be said about the place or absence of women in our collective memory.  My goal is to emphasize women as agents of change in American history by looking at both prominent individuals and the lives of ordinary women.  More importantly I want my students to see themselves as historically constructed around ideas of gender.  They are part of the ongoing story.  This class will hopefully give them the opportunity to step back and question the assumptions that have guided them thus far: What does it mean to be a woman at the beginning of the 21st century?

I love the fact that I still don’t know much about this subject.  On the one hand I get to guide the class through some interesting literature, but at the same time I am looking forward to having the students teaching me something new.  So, don’t be surprised if you see a post on this subject from time to time.


It’s A Celebration: Lee’s 200th

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The Washington Post article is out but unfortunately I wasn’t mentioned in it.  I spent close to one hour on the phone so I at least thought my name and blog would be mentioned.  Oh well, I guess that is the nature of the business.  You can read the article by Brigid Schulte if interested.  She did a pretty good job and included quotes from John Coski, Fitzhugh Brundage, and Theodore C. DeLaney; all are talented historians whose views I respect.

What follows are a few of my own thoughts about where we are on this 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth.  I want to say up front that I am not a Lee scholar.  Most of what I know about the man is from reading biographies and articles by Emory Thomas, Richard McClaslin, Gary Gallagher, Steven Woodworth, and Michael Fellman to name just a few.

For those of us who spend our lives thinking and writing about Southern history I think it is important to remember that for the overwhelming majority of people R. E. Lee is an insignificant name.  Still, for a small number of people there is the belief that Lee’s good name along with ideas about the Confederate experience are currently under assault.  We can make sense of this on a number of levels.  In the Post article Brundage correctly notes that the social make-up of the South is changing in ways that few people could have imagined just a few decades ago.

Now there are all sorts of other ways in which Southerners identify themselves — Salvadorans, Mexicans, Asians — [and] the politics and economics of the region are no longer based on white supremacy.  It makes all the sense in the world that for more and more Southerners, Robert E. Lee is just a footnote.

I agree with Brundage, but the  piece that is missing is that the participation by certain minorities in the last few decades since the Civil Rights Movement has led to a gradual reshaping of our historical landscape.  There is a strong connection between those that wield political influence and the way that power can be used to shape collective memory.  White supremacy during the era of Jim Crow led to a concerted effort to shape a certain memory of the war and the antebellum south.  In short, those who control politics also control the way we think about the past which in turn reinforces the justification for civic exclusion.  The changes that are taking place are inevitable and the debates that take place as a result are often heated.  I don’t know what the answer is; all I can say is that a certain amount of understanding and sympathy is always helpful.  Our public spaces should reflect the history of the people who live in a given region and who are in the end paying for the building and maintenance of these sites.

There is no shortage of biographies and other types of studies of Lee, but even here many interpret this body of scholarship as an attack on Lee and the South.  Copies of Alan Nolan’s 1991 study of Lee were burned in reaction to his characterization of Lee as slaveowner his decision to align himself with Virginia and the Confederacy, and his conduct of the war.  While I am not a big fan of the book there is something to be said of the heated response.  I see this as just one of the places where history and heritage compete for our attention.  We know much more about the antebellum south, the Confederacy, and the war in general so it is not surprising that many of our traditional views of this event and the people who fought it are changing.  We are closing in on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war which means that our emotional distance is also increasing.  No doubt this makes it easier for some to look at old questions from a fresh perspective or even challenge outright the assumptions that for so long have guided our thinking.  Washington and Lee University’s upcoming exhibit on Lee titled “Re-Visioning Lee” and Arlington National Cemetery’s symposium titled “Does Lee Matter” suggests that this year is going to see a great deal of conflict between those who are willing to step back and examine with fresh eyes and those who will cling to a more pleasing or comforting view of Lee.  According to DeLaney who is helping to organize the exhibit on Lee at W&L:

At Washington and Lee, all things are on the table for debate and discussion, including Robert E. Lee.  Nothing’s too sacred. And that’s an important change.

An important change for some, no doubt, but the majority of people celebrating Lee’s birthday are not interested in any reassessment of the general.  Rather, Lee’s place in the minds of many is secured and worth defending in the face of all challenges.  This popular image of Lee can be found in the many editorials that have appeared over the last few days in newspapers from around the country.  Here is just a small sample:

1. That “something” was wrapped up in his character more than in his morally maculate cause. He was a Virginia gentleman in the best sense: self-disciplined, devoted to duty, genteel, compassionate, humble. He cared for his bedridden mother, becoming nurse, companion, and housekeeper to her in her final years. Likewise did he serve his wife as arthritis began to cripple her. Other virtues? In his military career before the Civil War he displayed physical courage, fidelity, and technical competence as an engineer. As a father, he was a beloved–if seldom home–playmate, a reader of books and teller of stories.

2. If everyone had conducted themselves the way Robert E. Lee did after the Civil War, the healing could have been less painful. Human beings, flawed and sinful, decided to take the low road. They did not meet Lee on that road. True to his character, he refused to travel it.

3. In this modern age, where the individual has become god and God has been diminished so successfully, I guess it would be unreasonable to expect the general to receive his due respect.

4. The significance of General Lee’s (and Thomas Jackson’s) life cannot be overvalued. While the character and influence of most of us will barely be remembered two hundred days after our departure, the sterling character of these men has endured for two hundred years. What a shame that so many of America’s youth are being robbed of knowing and studying the virtue and integrity of the great General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

5. If Robert E. Lee were alive, he would be celebrating his 200th birthday on Friday, January 19, 2007. This date will probably pass without much notice in the North, but many of us in Dixie will mark the day with recollections of just how great a man he was. In this regard, I offer this reprint of his Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia. If Mr. Bush wants to end the war in Iraq now, this would serve as an excellent draft for his farewell speech to the troops.

6. Please share the story of this great Virginian with your children and local schoolteachers. The example of Robert E. Lee should be taught in our nation’s schools as America remembers his 200th birthday today.

I will leave it to others to evaluate Lee’s moral qualities.  As a historian the question holds no significance for me.  I am much more interested in understanding Lee within the rich historical context that has been explored over the past few decades by historians.  What I find so striking is the apparent disconnect between the assessment of Lee’s moral qualities and any discussion about history.  It’s as if Lee has been plucked out of the past to be used as we see fit.  We can use Lee to figure out how to handle the war in Iraq and as the embodiment of moral perfection we can use him to educate our children.

It is difficult not to draw comparisons with interpretations of Jesus.  For some the very thought of questioning stories about Jesus – like Lee – is already to take one step too many; it’s as if something sacred has been violated.  Better to accept certain assumptions about the moral character of Jesus and the events of his life on faith.  The only problem, of course, is in deciding what exactly to accept on faith.  What, if any, are the constraints on what can be accepted on faith and who gets to decide?  And within one’s faith should historical methodology play any role and if so how much?  I see both of these strands at work in our discussion of Lee and the broader public debate about our collective memory of the war.

In contrast with those who venerate Lee we have people who would have us believe that Lee is the embodiment of all that is wrong with America.  Check out the site of the Virginia Anti-War Network [Hat-Tip to John Maas] which includes a long article about Lee’s legacy:

Robert Edward Lee — the Virginian who owned and exploited Black people; helped steal half of Mexico during the U.S.-Mexican War; led the attack on abolitionist hero John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; deserted the Union Army; took up arms against the country he had sworn to defend in order to preserve the immensely profitable system of chattel slavery; and lost the Civil War by getting his reactionary butt decisively kicked by a force that included 200,000 armed people of African descent — was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford, Va.

Both views have much in common, including an overly simplistic view of Lee and the world in which he lived in.  Of course that is to be expected given the forums in which these views appear.  That fact, however, makes these accounts relevant as they capture, unlike our more sophisticated historical treatments of the Civil War, how most Americans “interpret” the past.  The problem is that in the end neither side really does justice to the history of the individual in question.  Both sides give the back of their hands to serious debate and thought.  Their interests are more focused on the present.  On the one hand Lee’s memory can be used to address the current demographic shifts taking place in the South along with the economic, cultural, and social changes since the 1960’s.  For those who reduce Lee’s legacy to that of a villain end up with a false image that can be used to address their own grievances and hopes for the future.

Either way there is little interest in serious history.  So I say happy birthday General Lee – whoever you are.


Mark Grimsley on Myth, Memory, and Sherman’s March

I was doing a bit of snooping around on the internet looking for information on memory and Sherman’s March when I came across a short essay by fellow blogger and historian Mark Grimsley.  It is a nice concise overview of the campaign and how our popular perceptions of Sherman and his men have evolved.

"Thieves, Murderers, and Trespassers": The Mythology of Sherman’s March


Editorial Changes At North and South Magazine

Last week Terry Johnston announced that he is leaving his editorial duties at North and South Magazine

I have some news that I need to share with you. As of last Friday (the 12th) I ceased to be the editor of North & South magazine. The move came as the company looks to cut costs in an attempt to help it back on secure financial footing. In short, I was downsized. Keith Poulter, the magazine’s founder and publisher, will resume the editorship, a position he occupied up until the end of 2004.

This is the first I’ve heard about any financial concerns surrounding the management of the magazine.  If I remember correctly Terry took over for Keith Poulter who was in the process of starting a new magazine on military history.  Now that I think about it I haven’t seen that publication on any news stands.  I do hope that Keith can maintain the publication as it is one of the best popular history magazines currently available. 

Terry did a great job maintaining the overall quality of the magazine, which was something I was concerned about when the transition was made.  I wish Terry all the best in his future endeavors. 

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Internal or External: A False Dichotomy?

I am making my way through the essays in James McPherson’s latest offering This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007).  All in all I have to say that I am just a bit disappointed with this collection.  Many of the essays fail to deliver a stronger analytical punch.  Part of the problem is that most of the chapters are reprinted from other publications that I am already familiar with.  A couple of chapters were originally published in the New York Review of Books.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with reworking material; Gordon Wood’s most recent collection is a also pulled from his articles in the NYRB.  The difference, however, is that Wood apparently spent more time expanding the reviews into fairly sophisticated essays.  There are a few chapters, including one on the Lost Cause and textbooks that are well worth the time to read.  For someone unfamiliar with these chapters the book will no doubt make for interesting reading. 

One of the chapters that originally appeared as a book review in the NYRB examines recent studies that explore questions surrounding Confederate defeat.  The books in question include, William Freehling’s The South v. The South, William C. Davis’s Look Away! and Gary W. Gallagher’s The Confederate War.  McPherson reviews these books and along the way offers  commentary about the historiography of Confederate defeat.  Most interpretations that purport to explain why the North won or why the Confederacy lost can be grouped within the so-called internal and external camps.  Explanations that fall into the former tend to reference internal conditions such as economic deficiencies or political bickering (David Donald’s thesis that states rights killed the Confederacy)  as the reasons why the Confederacy lost.  Shelby Foote brought this point home when he noted in the Ken Burns documentary that the "North fought that war with one hand behind its back."  External explanations, on the other hand, concentrate on the ebb and flow of the military campaigns as a sufficient reason for Northern victory or Confederate.   On this view the Confederacy succumbed to military defeat rather than specific internal problems. 

There is some value in distinguishing between internal and external explanations of Confederate defeat or Union victory.  The historiography of internal explanations is fairly rich and includes Richard Beringer, et. al. Why The South Lost The Civil War and Charles Ramsdell’s Behind the Lines in the Confederacy.  Historians who subscribe to this view must explain away the fact that the North experienced just as much – perhaps even more – internal political strife.  And implicit in the explanation is the assumption that we can know what is a sufficient level of internal conflict to explain defeat.  In arguing for internal conflict these historians conclude that white southerners never experienced a vibrant or sufficient level of nationalism (whatever that means).  McPherson notes another difficulty relating to sources which he notes in his comments re: Davis’s Look Away!:

It is the nature of newspaper editorials, private correspondence, congressional debates, partisan speeches, and the like to emphasize conflict, criticism, argument, complaint.  It is the squeaky wheel that squeaks.  The historian needs to step back and gain some perspective on these sources, to recognize that the well-greased wheel that turns smoothly also turns quietly, leaving less evidence of its existence for the historian.

If I understand McPherson he is basically saying that if you look for conflict and criticism in the political realm you are going to find it.  From here it is a short step to Foote’s conclusion that Confederate defeat was inevitable.  Regardless of the problems with the explanation it is undoubtedly the cased that these historians have uncovered important information about the Confederate experience. 

External accounts have made their mark more recently.  Gallagher’s Confederate War is a great place to start in looking at why the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.  Notice that the way the question is framed matters.  This was one of the first books that I ever read about the Civil War and it has shaped to a great extent the way I interpret the Confederate experience.  I wasn’t convinced at first by the argument and this had much to do with the way I read Gallagher’s book.  My biggest problem early on had to do with the fact that I was looking for an argument that somehow indicated that  Confederates had achieved in generating sufficient nationalism.  Indeed Gallagher talks a great deal about Confederate nationalism in the army and on the home front, but he does not get stuck in the question of whether the Confederacy "created a nation."  Rather he argues that Confederates identified in various ways which allowed them to continue the fight for close to five years and even come close to victory on more than one occasion.  I now tend to see that book more as a call to arms: Gallagher is basically saying that historians have tended to explain the Confederate experience by looking at why their experiment in revolution failed.  The question itself steers the historian in the direction of looking at what they fell short of achieving; in doing so they have ignored the myriad ways in which Confederates identified with their "nation."  It’s no accident that some of the best studies of Confederate nationalism have been written by Gallagher’s students.

This brings me to my major concern surrounding this distinction between internal and external accounts.  Simply put, I think the distinction has outlived its usefulness.  Although I can’t prove it I suspect that the attraction of the internal account as it appeared in earlier histories such as Why The South Lost The Civil War is that it allowed the historian to utilize the new social history without having to come to terms with the military aspects of the war.  This is where that vacuum affect comes into play.

Freehling’s study does not make this mistake.  While he admires Gallagher’s sketch of "selected Southerners’ pro-Confederate passions" Freehling argues that white southerners in the Upper South who served in large numbers in Federal armies and the slave population constituted a significant problem for Confederate authorities.  Freehling does not confine his analysis to the Confederate states, but broadens it to include all southern slave states.  In doing so he is able to show that between southern unionists and the slave population roughly half the population stood against the Confederate war effort.  I hesitate to call this an internal explanation – even though Freehling argues that both populations and the pressure they placed on the Confederate war effort proved to be decisive – because he spends as much time discussing the ways in which Union military operations along the Mississippi River exploited these apparent weaknesses.  There was nothing inevitable about Confederate defeat unless Union military authorities and the president took proper action.  [Freehling would probably disagree with this last point.] 

It seems to me that we can have our cake and eat it too.  The best recent military histories that fully integrate analysis of the political, economic, and social aspects of the Confederacy have the best chance of answering the big questions of why the war turned out the way it did.  We need to know how Union military policy changed over time in response to conditions on the ground.  Certain internal conditions may rise to the top depending on how they connect to the military sphere.  It is clear, however, that we are beyond examining interal conditions in a vacuum, which is where some studies fall short.   Our ability to unwind different forms of nationalism from complex local internal conditions is indispensable to understanding why military operations evolved from limited to hard war – to use Mark Grimsley’s language.  [I would also recommend Buck T. Foster’s Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign as another example of this approach.] 

I think we sometimes get wrapped up too tightly in certain distinctions.  I’ve tried to suggest that the distinction between internal and external explanations of the Civil War no longer carve up the historical terrain at its joints.  It is often noted that the Civil War created a situation where battlefield tactics failed to keep up with the technology.  Perhaps here we have a situation where recent historical interpretations have oustripped our ability to describe them accurately. 


A Blogging Confession

I am not happy with the quality of my blogging in recent weeks.   The few days in Atlanta allowed me some time to think a bit more critically about why I blog, and I was surprised to realize that I didn’t miss being away from it.  I actually thought about bringing my laptop to Atlanta for blogging purposes, but thankfully I decided against it.  I am certain that not bringing it made for a much more pleasant trip.

As many of you know I have maintained a fairly steady schedule of blog posts since starting in November 2005.  On most days you can read at least one post and sometimes as many as three.  While the amount of time I spend actually typing in a post is surprisingly short I do think a great deal about possible topics and whether they would make for interesting reading.  The other aspect that I am somewhat wary of is the extent to which my cynical side has emerged in my writing.  I’ve been criticized for the way I’ve referenced the writings of others and perhaps it is even justified.  Still, I stand behind everything I’ve said even if the tone could have been more palatable for some.  Let me say up front that I never thought of this blog as a way to make friends.  Links have been added by others to this blog and taken off for various reasons; at no time did I take it personally.  This sense of community is apparent among CW bloggers and for some I imagine that it is of some value.  For me it is more illusory.  That’s not to say that I have not enjoyed communicating with other bloggers just that I don’t necessarily blog to make friends or as a means to interact with others who share a common interest.  Issues surrounding how we write and think about the Civil War (and American history generally) matter to me for a number of reasons and at times that has emerged in my writing.

I’ve read that the average life of a blog is somewhere around a year.  There is a great deal of excitement early on which translates into a flurry of activity, but this eventually trails off into fewer posts and an overall lack of substance.  I now have a better sense of why that happens.  Bloggers begin to rehash old arguments and strain for fresh material and this tends to be accompanied by a certain amount of frustration.  Along with this is the feeling of obligation to those people who stop by at least once a day and often more than once.  There is a danger in allowing this to drive your blogging; for me it detracts from why I got into blogging to begin with.  Admittedly part of what is difficult for me to come to terms with is the fact that I tend to obsess about certain things; in other words, I find it difficult to pace myself.  In the case of blogging I find it especially difficult to pace myself because I tend to think that blogs should be updated on a regular basis.  I often wonder what’s wrong with those people who post infrequently (LOL).  In short I don’t want to end up posting for the sake of posting.

If you happen to be concerned that I am signing off let me assure you that I am not going anywhere.   What I am trying to say is that I do need to figure out how to proceed.  You may notice a change in the number of posts over the next few weeks.  To be honest I don’t know what will happen, but I do think that a healthy reassessment of what I am doing here is necessary.


Where Do We Go From Here?

In my comments at the AHA I made some brief remarks in my talk and during the Q&A about possible avenues for future research in connection with Civil War veterans and memory.  I thought I might take a minute and extend those thoughts to this sub-field as a whole.  Others have commented that the topic of Civil War memory is a passing fad, but a quick glance at the range of topics and types of questions that have been explored in recent years suggests that the field will continue to expand, especially with the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011.

Surprisingly, given the number of recent studies there are big gaps in the literature that are just waiting to be explored.  One of the most popular subjects for historians, including yours truly, has been the exploration of how battles and the ground on which they were fought were remembered and commemorated. We have excellent studies of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox; however, we still need interpretations of “Sherman’s March,” Andersonville and even the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimac.  Military figures such as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have proven to be popular subjects for study, but that short list could easily be expanded. First, the list tends to be dominated by white southerners which I suspect has much to do with the popularity of the Lost Cause. Donald Collins recently released a very short study of Jefferson Davis and memory; unfortunately that book is really a missed opportunity as the author failed to fully explore the subject.  Benjamin Butler would make for an ideal subject as well as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman’s postwar military career contribute to the way we remember him?  Joan Waugh is currently working on a book that explores how Grant was remembered and his place in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century civic culture.  The book is slated for publication with UNC Press.

Very little has been done on the Copperheads apart from Jennifer Weber’s fine study.  We need to know much more about northern dissidents and how their wartime political stance was handled locally following the war.  How did their memories of the war conflict with and evolve as the nation mourned Lincoln’s assassination, expanded economically, and became even more centralized? On the other side of the Potomac John Sarris’s study of northwest Georgia suggests that much more needs to be done on southern dissidents.  I mentioned in my AHA comments that community or local studies provide an ideal focus for the examination of memory.  Historians have begun to examine counties and regions, but little has been done on cities such as Charleston, New

York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.  My guess is that the urbanization of many cities and the influx of new ethnic groups presented some interesting challenges that became intertwined with Civil War remembrance and civic memory.  I suspect that these local perspectives are going to shed light on a great deal of disagreement over how the war was to be remembered.  The National Park Service would also make for an ideal study, which is absolutely essential given the recent controversy about how the park service should interpret our Civil War battlefields.  My work on the Crater clearly demonstrates that the park service inherited a specific interpretation of the battle that was tightly controlled by white southerners and the veterans themselves.  The park service gained control of the battlefield in 1936 and accepted without question an interpretation that ignored the participation of USCT’s and their treatment following the battle by Confederates.  I cite this as one example, but I suspect that much more could be done as battlefields at Chickamauga  and Antietam were turned into National Military Parks.  One of the most common rebuttals against the expansion of the NPS’s interpretive focus is that it should not be in the business of interpretation.  An examination of the Crater battlefield demonstrates that the NPS was involved in interpretation from the beginning – and a rather narrow interpretation at that.

Feel free to offer additional suggestions.