What Should Be Done With the Electric Map at Gettysburg?

So, I’ve been reading about the plans of the National Park Service at Gettysburg to shut the lights out permanently on the electronic battlefield map that has been used since 1973 to introduce visitors to the broad contours of the battle.  Since I only visited Gettysburg for the first time in the mid-1990s I am not holding onto any sentimental feelings that go back to family vacations.  I do understand and appreciate those people that are holding onto such memories and I especially appreciate the desire on the part of the exhibit designer’s family to see it preserved.  I agree that it is an effective teaching tool, but that can easily be accomplished, and can no doubt be done more effectively, with today’s technology.  What I don’t understand is why people are so surprised by this decision.  Did anyone really believe that room would be made for this exhibit in a brand new visitor center?  More to the point, given the limited budget that the NPS works with and the ways in which available funds could be applied it would seem to me to be irresponsible to save it.  Does anyone have a figure on how much it will cost to store it properly beyond plans to cut it up into small pieces and store it in a barn?

The website created to pressure the NPS doesn’t offer any suggestions whatsoever and instead takes a personal shot at Superintendent, John Latschar.  Actually, he’s right on the money, “It’s 100% antiquated.”  He went on to say in a recent interview that, “From an architectural standpoint, it takes up an immense amount of space and we have consistent problems with school kids falling asleep.”  Let’s get real, this is not a “national icon” but an exhibit whose time has come and gone.  I do think, however, that there is a great deal of significance that can be attached to the exhibit in terms of the history of how the battle has been interpreted and remembered by the NPS.

Click here for an overview of the new visitor center.


A Case of Poor Timing

I noticed yesterday that Louisiana State University Press is bringing out an edition of John Washington’s slave narrative edited by Crandall Shifflett.  The problem, of course, is that six months ago David Blight published Washington’s narrative along with a second set in Alabama.  Blight struck out across the country to promote the book and it is safe to assume that those who have an interest in the story have purchased the book.  [Click here for a related post on David Blight and John Washington.]  In yesterday’s post I briefly referenced James McPherson’s review of Drew Faust’s new book on death and the Civil War. In addition to Faust, McPherson reviewed Mark A. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Cornell University Press, 2008).  Tell me if I am mistaken, but it seems to me that McPherson preferred Schantz’s study over Faust.  Unfortunately, given Faust’s notoriety and the support of Knopf’s publicity department it is unlikely that Schantz will make a splash.  Perhaps that is why Amazon is offering the book at a major discount.  Timing is everything.

Anyone out there in the finishing stages of a book manuscript on the battle of the Crater and historical memory?  Let’s talk.

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Steven Hahn Reviews Faust and Neely

I highly recommend Steven Hahn’s New Republic review of Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering and Mark Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction.  Although you can’t read it online I also recommend checking out James McPherson’s review of Faust and Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Cornell University Press, 2008) in the New York Review of Books.   McPherson suggests that Faust’s interpretation goes too far in equating the meaning of the war with death rather than emancipation.  Eric Foner also made this point in his review which appeared in The Nation.


Joseph Glatthaar on Black Confederates

Actually, Glatthaar refrains from referring to black Confederates in his latest study, General Robert E. Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse.  When the book first arrived I was tempted to skip directly to chapter 24 which is titled "Blacks and the Army", but decided to read through just in case his analysis hinged on issues discussed in previous chapters.  I was hoping that Glatthaar would address the controversy surrounding this subject, but by the time I finished the chapter I understood why he avoided it.  The book is essentially a biography of the Army of Northern Virginia and the narrative tends to avoid explicit references to broader historiographical themes; the endnotes list the massive amount of primary sources utilized in this study as well as more detailed statistical analysis culled from his sample size.  [In contrast, consider Chandra Manning’s endnotes which are filled with interesting references to historiography, though this is not surprising given that the book was based on her dissertation.]  That said, anyone familiar with recent interpretive themes from the past 2-3 decades will easily recognize that this is a sophisticated narrative which situates the Army of Northern Virginia within a broader social and political context. What I like about is that it is organized chronologically, including chapters that address various topics such as religion, home front, discipline, supply, and organization.

By discussing blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia as opposed to black Confederates Glatthaar avoids the semantic pitfalls that accompany the debate.  By chapter 24 the reader understands how important the institution of slavery was to a large percentage of the men who served in the army [See my earlier reference to this.] and the role of the army as an extension of a government whose professed goal it was to protect it and the racial hierarchy of the South.  Glatthaar surveys the various functions that blacks provided in the army throughout the war, including the impressment of slaves and the experiences of those who accompanied their masters into camp and on occasion into battle.  Such a survey – both within the army and in terms of the threat of slave unrest on the home front – serves as a reminder that the burden is on those who would have us believe that large numbers of slaves and free blacks served as soldiers in Lee’s army.  In other words, the goal cannot simply be trumpeting photographs, news articles, and other sources that vaguely point to black men in Confederate uniforms or engaged in an activity as a sign of loyalty or as an indication that the ANV is somehow to be understood as an interracial army.  The only way you can do so is if you ignore the large body of scholarship that has emerged over the past few decades which demonstrates the centrality of slavery to the Confederate experience.  Without saying as much Glatthaar’s brief chapter on this subject brings into sharp focus the fact that the people and organizations who continue to push the black Confederate narrative are completely oblivious to serious scholarship on race and slavery in the Civil War.  Sometimes there is no way of getting around having to read those pesky scholarly studies. 

Note: Check out Dimitri Rotov’s excellent post on the handling of black Confederates by North and South editor, Keith Poulter.  I like the angle on the responsibilities of an editor which I haven’t given much thought to in my own posts on the subject


Thank You Dr. King


Lincoln’s “Little People”

Most of you have no doubt heard that Sotheby’s has auctioned a letter by Abraham Lincoln for $3.4 million.  The letter in question was written on April 5, 1864 in response to a request by a group of students for Lincoln to free the slaves.  He addressed the letter to their teacher, Mrs. Horace Mann:

Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are
so full of just and generous sympathy and that, while I have not the
power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has,
and that, as it seems, He wills to do it.

I don’t know about you, but I am struck by Lincoln’s sensitivity to their request and I love that reference to the students as "little people".  First, he takes their request seriously by acknowledging their emotional convictions, but at the same time manages to point to his own limits as president.  In other words, Lincoln is saying that it is unfortunate that the issue of slavery cannot be decided based on "generous sympathy" alone.  In addition, Mann’s students learn that their president is not all-powerful, but constrained by the Constitution.  The reference to God’s will perhaps would have sounded familiar if their teacher had introduced Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the classroom. 


Update on Confederate Monument Defacing in Montgomery

This is an update on the three white teens who were arrested for defacing a Confederate statue in Montgomery, Alabama back in November 2007.  The teens painted "N.T. 11 11 31" in black
paint on the monument’s base, an apparent reference to
the date rebellious slave Nat Turner was hanged in 1831.  According to Attorney Richard Keith:

They learned this stuff in school.  Folks are wondering what was going on, what the
message was and it was a statement against slavery.  They should have used pens and paper instead of cans of
spray paint, but otherwise they weren’t making
antagonistic gestures.  I don’t
think anyone condones slavery, at least not these days anyway.

Read the story here.


Remembering Dr. King From a Slightly Different Angle

Forty years ago this week Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee.  I will begin all of my classes by reminding them of this important date.  King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 sparked widespread race riots across America that cost dozens of lives and led to damages worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It hastened the process of ‘white flight’ from the inner cities that left many American downtowns virtually abandoned. Many have not yet recovered.  In the days immediately following King’s assassination it was left to countless individuals – some famous, but mostly obscure – to try to quell the violence.  The most famous example is that of Robert Kennedy climbing a platform to reassure and calm the people of Indianapolis.  What most people are not aware of, however, is what took place the next evening  on April 5 in Boston where James Brown was scheduled to give a concert.  Brown decided to go ahead with the concert and agreed to have it televised as a way to maintain calm in the streets of that city.  He was later thanked for his efforts by Lyndon Johnson.  Here is a short clip from that concert.  VH1 recently commissioned a movie around the concert called "The Night James Brown Saved Boston" which can be seen on Saturday.  Note: I’ve been known to employ some of Brown’s moves in this video while teaching.