Have Unit Histories Hit a Brick Wall?

I just finished reading Scott Mingus’s book on the Louisiana Tigers for a review in the journal, Louisiana History.  Mingus’s focus is specifically the Gettysburg Campaign (June-July 1863)  Let me just say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Mingus has a command of the relevant primary sources and the book is well written and should be read by those interested in military history, Louisiana History and, of course, Gettysburg.  I will post the review when it is published, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that will not make it in the review owing to space issues.

It seems to me that unit histories fall into one of two camps.  The first one, and by far the most prominent, is the standard/traditional unit history, which emphasizes the campaigns/battles in which the unit participated.  This should come as no surprise given that this is what most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in.  The focus may be on a unit’s experience in a particular campaign or the war as a whole.  By focusing on one unit the historian is able to provide a level of tactical detail that is usually absent from broader studies.  The best of the bunch may even be able to point out crucial aspects of a particular battle that work to revise our understanding of its outcome and significance.  Mingus’s book fits neatly into this first camp.  He offers the reader a brief history of the unit, beginning with the raising of Company B under the command of Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat in New Orleans in 1861.  Mingus briefly touches on the unit’s early history before the battalion was assigned to the First Louisiana Brigade under the command of brigadier general Harry T. Hays in 1862.  From there it is a quick jump to the spring of 1863 following the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  Mingus does an outstanding job of following the unit on its march north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and covers the unit’s involvement in the battle of Second Winchester in great detail.  It goes without saying that Mingus’s coverage of the “Louisiana Tigers” at Gettysburg will satisfy even the most voracious appetites for tactical detail. [click to continue…]

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A Confederate Invasion?

I‘m behind in my APUS History classes which has forced me to move quickly through the Civil War.  You can imagine how frustrating that is given my interests.  Regardless, I am very particular about the language I use to describe the past and I expect my students to be attentive to such matters as well.  It matters how we refer or describe individuals and events, especially when discussing our Civil War.  I’ve already mentioned my preference for consistently referring to the United States rather than the Union or the North.

In my discussions today I noticed a couple of students looking at me funny whenever I referred to a Confederate invasion of the United States.  Of course, I was referring specifically to the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and Gettysburg Campaign the following summer.  [We could also throw in Jubal Early’s little foray in 1864 in as well.]  I inquired into their strange stares and one of the students admitted that he was not used to thinking of the Confederate army as an invading army.  Not surprisingly, this same student had no difficulty coming to terms with an invasion of the South or Confederacy.  A few students embraced Lincoln’s fairly consistent belief that the southern states were in rebellion and therefore still a part of the nation, but they had no qualms with the idea of an invasion.

I guess this has everything to do with the assumption that the Confederacy was simply fighting a defensive war.  But it also goes to some of our more cherished beliefs that draw a sharp distinction between Confederate and United States armies.  For the latter, we immediately think of Grant and Sherman, who did, in fact, engage in aggressive offensives throughout the war.  On the other hand, we do have difficulty acknowledging the same aggressive tendencies in Confederate commanders.  We would rather remember them as leading a gallant defensive effort against overwhelming resources rather than as engaged in a war that would hopefully lead to independence for all slave holding states.  Invasions are carried out by generals like Grant and Sherman, not by Lee and Jackson.  I suspect that my students are dealing with this baggage.  If I had more time or if that comment had come in my elective course on the Civil War I could have utilized any number of primary and secondary sources that shed light on this subject.

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If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox

Interestingly, this film was done in 1982, well before the YouTube Era.  You will have to excuse me, but for some reason I find this sort of video to be quite funny.  This one clearly reflects the persistence of the “Grant the Drunk” narrative.  A more recent video that depicts Grant with bottle can be found here.  Enjoy.

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Dare To Ask Questions

Somehow I became a topic of concern over at Michael Aubrecht’s blog because I dared to comment on the Richard Kirkland story during the same week that a new website and film preview were introduced.  I find it funny that both Aubrecht and Richard Williams make a point of minimizing my influence even as they spend their time worrying about what I write.  Anyway, this little gem of a comment from Williams made my day:

“Outside of his classroom and blog, he has very little influence.”

Precisely Michael. Dana Shoaf of Civil War Times said in an interview a while back that, “The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience.” I’ve personally noticed that academics, particularly those like Levin, talk mostly to themselves. Shoaf further noted, “people often are reluctant to read social history because they think it is boring.” Levin is a “social historian” and a self-proclaimed “activist historian.” That limits his influence and impact.  Moreover, Levin’s (and many of his followers) constant impugning and mocking of Confederate heritage and history turns a lot of people in the “popular audience” category off, which even further narrows his influence.

In reference to the Richard Kirkland documentary that is slated for release in the near future, let me just say that I wish the people involved all the success in the world.  No doubt, they put a great amount of time into this project and I am sure that it will find an enthusiastic audience.  As I stated in my first post in the series, I decided to write about it after reading Peter Carmichael’s recent Fredericksburg commemoration talk in which he referenced Kirkland.  That led me to what I thought was an interesting essay on some of the sources for the story that I featured as a guest post.  That, in turn, led to a pretty good discussion.  I guess I never realized that raising questions about a popular story in our collective memory of the Civil War would be such a problem.

By the way, Richard, Dana Shoaf is featuring one of my articles in the next issue of Civil War Times:D

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Gone With the Wind at 70

This year is the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind and this week my Civil War Memory class will watch it.  Depending on how they respond to it we may even watch it in its entirety.  There are so many thought provoking scenes, which will allow us to address a number of interpretive threads that have been passed down in our collective memory.  With Birth of a Nation already under their belt they will also be able to begin to track certain themes in popular culture during the first part of the twentieth century.

In addition to viewing the movie, students will have to write an analytical review that addresses questions that I have provided.  This time around they will also have to spend some time on one of our school’s databases that includes newspapers from around the country.  They will have to integrate reviews and editorials into their essays.  We will start with the following blog post from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to get the juices flowing.

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