The Best Jobs in the U.S.

I don’t need to be told by some independent source that I have an awesome job.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to have it confirmed.

1. Mathematician 2. Actuary 3. Statistician 4. Biologist 5. Software Engineer 6. Computer Systems Analyst 7. Historian 8. Sociologist 9. Industrial Designer 10. Accountant.

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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.


Museum of the Confederacy on YouTube

It’s nice to see the Museum of the Confederacy taking advantage of YouTube as a form of outreach. A few months ago they started a series of short videos on various subjects that feature their talented staff as well as the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts. This video focuses on Turner Ashby and includes interviews with Robert Hancock, Teresa Roane, and John Coski.

Click here for the other videos.


Discovering Reconstruction

reconstruction_congressI am doing quite a bit of reading over this holiday break. One of the books I am making my way through is Capitol Men by Philip Dray. The book tells the story of the principal black leaders in Congress during Reconstruction. It’s well written and does a thorough job of explaining both the backgrounds of the individual subjects as well as the tumultuous times in which they lived. Actually, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Reconstruction and the postwar years generally, and there is a great deal to choose from. One can’t help but be impressed by the selection of books on Reconstruction that have been published over the past few years. [Click here for Ed Blum’s overview of this literature.] Just a few years ago you would be lucky to find the abridged version of Eric Foner’s magisterial history of the period. But the recognition of a spike in interest in the subject also begs for explanation. This influx of new books couldn’t have come at a better time given the election of our first black president. That said, this welcome change probably has little to do with the recent election.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the historiography of Reconstruction. I’ve read a bit of U.B. Phillips, and others who studied under William Dunning at Columbia; Dunning reinforced a rather narrow view of Reconstruction as a failure and one that reinforced white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century. It’s important to keep in mind that although this school of thought was challenged by scholars beginning in the early 1950s, and even more so in the 1970s, these debates were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands of newly-freed slaves, and a dismissal of the black perspective generally. However, it was not until the 1988 publication of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (and shortly thereafter, the abridged edition) that a broader audience was offered a readable account that synthesized much of this scholarship. In addition to winning a number of academic awards it also received a great deal of attention in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. It’s hard to say how much of an effect Foner’s book had on our popular perceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction – probably little to none, but it is difficult to deny his importance to this new crop of recent historical studies. Most of these authors acknowledge Foner’s scholarship as invaluable in their own quest to better understand the period.

But if Foner’s work constitutes perhaps the best example of a scholarly reconfiguration of our understanding of Reconstruction than it is the war in Iraq, which has introduced that scholarship to a broader demographic. It should come as no surprise that a resurgence of interest came at a time when the public discourse was centered around the reconstruction of Iraq. Historians such as Ed Ayers chimed in with op-ed pieces, which highlighted the challenges of such a venture and reminded the American people of an earlier attempt at trying to reconstruct a deeply-entrenched political, social, and racial hierarchy. Following a list of lessons that one should take away from that “First Occupation”, Ayers concludes with the following:

A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation’s history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge — and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.

It is not a stretch to imagine scholars and writers of various sorts following up their reading of these editorials by taking a more in-depth look at what went wrong with the federal government’s earlier attempt at Reconstruction, even as our public officials struggled to explain to the America people why there was so little progress in Iraq. For those of us who had an understanding of the difficulties involved in reconstructing a society, the president’s declarations, which reduced the challenge down to the conviction that all people desire freedom seemed grossly naive and even reckless.

The street fighting in Baghdad and Falujah echo those that took place in New Orleans, Memphis, and elsewhere, and while Americans were shocked at the indiscriminate killing among religious sects the postwar terrorism against newly-freed slaves rivals anything to be found in the Middle East. Recent studies of postwar violence include Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2007) and Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007). Two books, one by Charles Lane and the other by LeeAnna Keith, explore the Colfax Massacre of 1873. This does not include the numerous scholarly of Reconstruction violence against African Americans, and even newer editions of older studies, that have been published over the past few years. Collectively, these books can be seen as a vindication of Ayers’s warning that a nation engaged in so difficult a project as the reconstruction of another country ought to proceed with “humility and self-knowledge.”

If there is a silver lining in this resurgence of interest it is that a much larger audience now has access to books that present Reconstruction in a much more sophisticated light, one that takes seriously the steps that Americans took to extend and protect basic civil rights regardless of race. It not only involves moving beyond the overly simplistic language of scalawags and carpetbaggers, but involves giving voice to black and white leaders who worked to extend the franchise and other political rights to former slaves and even the vast majority of poor whites who had been excluded from the polity. Recent book include Garrett Epps’s Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007), Eric Foner’s Forever Free, as well as Dray’s Capitol Men. American Experience’s recent documentary on Reconstruction also reflects this newfound interest.

Finally, this could not have come at a better moment in the history of this country. With our first black president set to take office in a matter of weeks it is comforting to know that a solid body of historical scholarship is available for those who are interested in placing Barack Obama’s candidacy within a broader historical context. It is important for us to understand the struggle that led to this moment in our history, and in doing so, we should acknowledge that while it is a momentous step in a new direction, it is but one step on a long road that involves appreciating the extent to which race has shaped this nation’s political, social, and economic hierarchy. We should ask the tough questions related to the timing of Obama’s candidacy, why it didn’t or perhaps couldn’t happen sooner, and why so few African Americans have served in the federal government since Reconstruction. We should ask these questions not with the goal of self-hatred, but because we are all part of this larger national narrative, and because Democracy is a constant struggle. I am under no illusion that large numbers of Americans will flock to the bookstores to purchase these recent titles; however, the fact of their availability suggests to me that our society is in a much better place to ask some of these tough questions that at any time before.


Happy New Year!