A Conservative Threat on Campus?

How often do we hear from certain quarters about the overwhelming bias among so-called liberal academics who stifle free-thinking and use their classrooms as bully pulpits? Most of these claims are made by folks who have little or no experience in academia and do so as a way to reinforce what can only be described as an overly simplistic view of the world and/or a need to filter everything through a naive personal morality play. I have to say that I usually get a kick out of these little rants.

Today I was treated to a visit by a student who graduated last year and is currently enrolled at the College of Charleston. Last year this student took my elective course on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War and did quite well. As if one course on Lincoln isn’t enough, this student just completed a course in the English Department with Professor David Aiken, who apparently spends much of his time discussing Lincoln and the war. Apparently, Aiken offers a very different view of Lincoln compared with what this student read last year in my course. [Readings included a book by William Gienapp as well as articles by Burlingame, Holzer, Boritt, Guelzo, and Donald, etc.] The student did quite well in my course so I asked what the class discussions were like. Unfortunately, it turns out that this professor rarely allows other viewpoints from being introduced into the classroom that differ from his own. Of course, the opinion of one student counts for very little, but if you check out Aiken’s Rate My Professors page it seems that there is sufficient confirmation. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem whatsoever with introducing an alternative view of Lincoln, but I do have a problem with the professor preventing his students from challenging his interpretation for no good reason. I would love to know what sources an English professor uses to teach about Lincoln.

Don’t worry, I am not going to issue any overarching condemnations of all conservative professors. I’m sure there are plenty out there that are offering their students a first-rate education.

Shaking Hands Over the Stone Wall

lo1214Fburgbattleram4I heard about this during my presentation at Fredericksburg this past Sunday. The day before re-enactors from the 28th Massachusetts and the 47th Virginia marked the 146th anniversary of the battle with a historic handshake over the famous stone wall at Marye’s Heights. It’s arguably the most powerful example of our Civil War community’s obsession with the themes of reunion and reconciliation. I don’t really have an opinion about it one way or the other. The NPS decided to allow it and I trust their judgment. In the end, I think the gesture reflects our interests more than the soldiers themselves or anything having to do with history. It’s more about our needs. But it does point to a question of what these men and women who don uniforms claim to be reenacting. If they are reenacting Civil War soldiers than it seems to me they run the risk of being characterized as emotional farbs. These guys worry about getting the outward appearance just right, but what about the emotional outlook of the Civil War soldier? Where is the bitterness and outward expressions of anger? What exactly are you reenacting at the stone wall?

A Bold Civil War Times Illustrated

cwtiNot convinced?  Just check out the cover of the latest issue, which announce that R.E. Lee “favored slavery and fought like hell to keep it.”  Well, serious students have known this to be the case for some time now, but with Dana Shoaf at the editorial helm we can be assured that a much broader audience will be forced to wrestle with some fundamental assumptions about Lee and the war in general.  Dana has done a magnificent job of introducing much more sophisticated essays to the magazine that cover a wider range of subjects compared with just a few short years ago.  This issue also includes a column by Gary Gallagher on the new visitor center at Gettysburg as well as an interview with Joe Glatthaar about his new book on Lee’s army.  Gallagher’s review touches on points I’ve been making over the last few months [scroll down].

Once my subscription runs out with North and South I am going to subscribe to CWTI.  [I would have added a link to their website, but it is still down.]  I’ve been very disappointed with the quality of the magazine of late.  The writing has suffered and the essays themselves have been rather boring.  The latest issue includes a photograph of Keith Poulter on a camel.  Well, I imagine it is fairly difficulty to run a magazine from such a location.

Being Civil War Memory

Kevin Levin and John HennessyIt finally hit me early yesterday morning why I felt just a little uncomfortable about giving the commemorative talk on the Fredericksburg battlefield.  I am used to addressing audiences – either in the form of an academic panel discussion or informal roundtable setting – about the past from a detached perspective.  More specifically, I am used to exploring how battlefields have been commemorated and remembered by others, and trying my best to understand the factors, which have come to shape various commemorative forms as well as our popular memory.  Yesterday’s presentation collapsed that distinction.  I’m quite confident that those of you who have followed this blog for some time will not be surprised by the overarching theme of my presentation, but now that I think about it, there is something special about being able to present it on an actual battlefield.  In a sense, my words are now part of the commemorative history of that particular battlefield stretching back to the war itself.  I like that.

Despite losing my place at one point owing to the fact that my hands were shaking from the cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.  Most of the 200 people who attended arrived as part of NPS historian Frank O’Reilly’s yearly tour from the downtown area up to Marye’s Heights.  I would have liked to have tagged along, but there can be no complaints when the alternative is a personal tour of the downtown area with John Hennessy.

Photos from the weekend can be found at flickr.

Commemorating Fredericksburg

Today I am giving the keynote address as part of a ceremony commemorating the 146th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Thanks to my friend and fellow historian John Hennessy for inviting me to take part on this important day. I can’t say this was the easiest presentation to write, but I am fairly comfortable with the final version. As always, your critical comments are appreciated.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.

I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.

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