Looks like we are once again on the ‘why don’t our teenagers know a damn thing about history’ bandwagon. Seems like it was only yesterday that we learned from a poll in England that a significant number of students concluded that Winston Churchill was a fictional character. What I find troubling is the lack of historical context as part of our evaluations of these polls. We proceed as if we have left a golden age where America’s teens soaked up historical knowledge along with the understanding that it all contributed to the maintenance of democracy and their role in it. Do teenagers today really understand less than say high schoolers in the 1950s? How about teenagers in the 1920s or 1880s? Does it even make sense to draw such comparisons? From USA Today:
Among 1,200 students surveyed:
•43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.
•52% could identify the theme of 1984.
•51% knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.
In all, students earned a C in history and an F
in literature, though the survey suggests students do well on topics
schools cover. For instance, 88% knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor led
the USA into World War II, and 97% could identify Martin Luther King
Jr. as author of the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Fewer (77%) knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery a century earlier.
This is the kind of feedback one typically finds in these surveys. Rarely is there any discussion as to why these results matter. Why does an understanding of the theme of 1984 matter or the connection between McCarthy and communism? I listened to a number of interviews last night and they all followed the same script. Supposed experts discussed the poll, but not one reflected on the significance of the results beyond the standard vague references that teenagers are preoccupied with x, y, and z or that our schools have failed them or that this constitutes a threat to our democracy.
Enough with the surveys. How about focusing on the numbers of students across the country who take part in National History Day events or the number of students who are currently majoring in history in college. I don’t believe the sky is falling and I am not concerned about these surveys. Most of the adults that I know who are middle age and older are just as ignorant. Why not focus on them and leave the kids alone.
From the USA Today:
Rep. Donald Brown, a Republican from the Panhandle, introduced HB 1007 last week. It directs state officials to develop and issue tags that "contain an emblem or logo of Florida’s historic Confederate flags and facsimiles of the buttons issued to Florida Confederate units."
The $25 surcharge for these "Confederate Heritage" tags would fund educational and historical programs offered by Sons of Confederate Veterans. A spokesman for the group tells our corporate cousins at the Tallahassee Democrat that they have 30,000 people who are ready to buy the tags if they’re approved.
"We’ve done everything required of us," Bob Hurst tells the Democrat. "All we’re asking for is to be treated fairly and equally. There are 108 specialty tags now and six before the Legislature this year. I hope the governor and Legislature will play by the rules; if not, I think it speaks poorly of the Florida Legislature."
Just one question for Rep. Hurst. Do any of the other 108 specialty tags include contested images akin to the Confederate battle flag? Were any of those images carried in Florida streets as a symbol of "Massive Resistance" during the Civil Rights Movement?
What I find outrageous, however, is that the SCV supports this kind of program. After all, aren’t these the very same people who constantly refer us to the flag’s sacred qualities which they believe demand our utmost respect. And yet, they are willing to plaster the very same image on the back of a car just inches from its fuel exhaust. What a bunch of hypocrites.
Click here for an earlier post on how Confederate enthusiasts show their respect for the flag.
A relatively new reader who is currently a college undergraduate recently asked for my advice regarding graduate programs in Civil War/Southern History. I blogged about this before and in addition to my own suggestions a number of readers offered their own recommendations. I was struck by one particular section of the email and want to share it since there may be others out there who are dealing with this important question:
I e-mailed my university’s resident 19th Century American/Southern history professor – a young guy, not fresh out of his PHD research but not a grizzled vet quite – asking about advice and recommendations of schools. The gist of the e-mail I got back was: Consider not going at all, the field is unfashionable, the jobs market is terrible, avoid American Studies like the plague specifically, good teachers are not rewarded, and to reiterate, STRONGLY consider not going.
Since I am not working at the college level there isn’t much that I can offer as a response. There is information on the job market and recent trends that the American Historical Association tracks which may be available on their website. I have friends and acquaintances in the field of Civil War/Southern History – many of them graduates of the University of Virginia’s program – that have done quite well in securing positions.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I have any intention of moving on to the Ph.D and a college teaching position. The question is usually asked with an air of curiosity as to why I have not already done so as if I have not quite completed the journey. While I would love to have the time to write a dissertation under the direction of one of the many talented scholars currently working in the field I have very little interest in teaching on the college level. In fact, I am willing to wager that if I did go on the market I would take both a serious pay cut as well as have to teach students that are not as skilled as my current crop.
For any of you who are considering a career in education please consider teaching high school. We desperately need good teachers.
One of my readers passed on an interesting story that fits perfectly into my series of posts on so-called black Confederates. Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia is scheduled to declare March 5 to be “Bill Yopp Day”; the ceremony will include descendants of Yopp as well as state legislators and a number of “notable historians.” Unfortunately, there is no indication as to which historians have been included. For what it is worth the author of an upcoming work of historical fiction based on Yopp’s life has been invited. I’ve never heard of Yopp so I find this story and especially the plans to commemorate what many take to be a legitimate black Confederate to be quite interesting. The event is being advertised as part of the month-long commemoration of Confederate history. Who was Bill Yopp and why is he being commemorated? The only information I could find online comes from various Southern Heritage sites, which tend to repeat the same themes and include very little in the form of serious research. Check out the following sites:
Apparently, there are a number of newspaper articles from the turn of the century which indicate that Yopps “served” as a drummer in a regiment with his master and helped to secure Confederate pensions for the state’s veterans at the turn of the century. Yopp is apparently the only black man in the state buried in a Confederate cemetery.
What I find interesting is the decision to commemorate Yopp’s life during March rather than February which is Black History Month. The timing suggests that Yopp’s significance is to be understood in terms of how white Georgians have chosen to remember his life. Is it possible that it would have been more difficult to celebrate the Confederate connection of a black American during the month of February? It seems to me that if black and white southerners are committed to demonstrating the loyalty of large numbers of slaves to the Confederacy than they should be comfortable acknowledging this as part of Black History Month.
Beyond the newspaper articles that are available does anyone know if Yopp’s life has been analyzed by a legitimate historian? I suspect that the answer is no, but will wait to hear otherwise. If I am right I would suggest that someone take up this topic. It would make for a great case study of Civil War memory and may shed light on the postwar construction of black Confederates. Perhaps I will do it myself.
Short Additional Thought
One of the striking features of the numerous websites where you will find examples of so-called black Confederates is how little information is actually included concerning their individual lives. The value that is placed on the lives of these men is purely instrumental in terms of the extent to which they support an agenda whose goal it is to remove any discussion of race and slavery from the analysis of the history of the Confederacy and the Civil War. Their lives are reduced to their supposed “service” and “loyalty” to the Confederate cause and their masters. No attempt is made to come to terms with their lives as individuals as rooted in their own local experiences. Their presence in the army is taken for granted rather than as something that needs to be explained. In short, these men are stripped of their humanity and agency because the individuals who write about them have no use for the totality of their experiences.
A short survey of SCV websites and other organizations read as if their content were “xeroxed” (or cut and pasted) from one site to another. This stands in sharp contrast to the recent historiography of slavery which is deeply rooted in both time and place and in working to highlight the individual experiences of slaves to the extent that the available evidence permits.
If you thought the dearth of events commemorating the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee’s birth was depressing you ain’t seen nothing yet. This year is the bicentennial of Jefferson Davis’s birth, but even his home state of Mississippi is uninterested. According to an AP story:
"Even Mississippi, the state where Davis made his plantation fortune and
to which he retired after the war, gave the idea of commemorating Davis
a lukewarm reception. A bill to establish a commission "for the purpose
of organizing and planning a celebration in recognition of Jefferson
Davis’ 200th birthday" easily passed the House, only to die in the
Senate appropriations committee."
Bertram Hayes-Davis, head of the Davis Family Association and
great-great grandson of the only president of the Confederate States of America, has had little luck in organizing activities in honor of his
great-great grandfather. The Department of Defense refused to even
consider organizing an event to acknowledge Davis’s service as
Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. The Jefferson Davis
Bicentennial Organization has very little listed on its calendar of
events which is more than likely how it will remain throughout the rest
of the year.
Part of the problem is that Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial is overshadowing everything as it should be. Civil War historian and Davis biographer William J. Cooper had this to say:
Lincoln "saved the Union. He emancipated the slaves. I mean, he won the
war," Cooper says. "Fighting against Lincoln is, you know, fighting
True enough, but that is only part of the story. It does not explain why so little has been planned in states like Mississippi and by Southern Heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. One can assume that they are not rushing to acknowledge Lincoln’s historical significance. But perhaps last week’s reenactment of Davis’s inauguration provides a clue. Hayes-Davis took part in the reenactment of his ancestor’s
swearing-in ceremony in Montgomery on February 15; however, rather than repeat
the oath he simply kissed the Bible and turned to the crowd
and said, "So help me God." One is left wondering exactly what he was reenacting.
I suspect that Hayes-Davis did not want to be perceived to be engaged in another act of treason, but it is the very oath of office to defend the Confederate Constitution that both reflects Davis’s significance to American history and perhaps why he has been so easily dismissed as an object of public commemoration. No doubt the fact that the oath was to defend a constitution that was explicitly written to defend and perpetuate slavery shaped their decision to bypass it altogether. It is much easier to focus on the battlefield heroics of Lee and Jackson, in part, because their actions can be interpreted as apolitical. We can wrap their actions around the Victorian ideals of masculinity and courage without acknowledging that the armies they led were extensions of a political system. Davis on the other hand could never be understood apart from the muck and mire of Confederate politics even though he achieved, according to Donald E. Collins, a certain amount of public acclaim in the South towards the end of his life – and more importantly, even if his policies and decisions in Richmond contributed substantially to the growing popularity and eventual legendary status of Lee and Jackson.
Perhaps the failure to commemorate Davis’s life reflects our continued preoccupation with battles and leaders and our unwillingness to more fully appreciate or come to terms with the political realities of the war. In the end, did anyone come close to embodying the Confederate cause more so than Jefferson Davis?
The following review of Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, The Civil War’s Cruelest Mission is slated to appear in the Journal of Southern History. Writing for the JSH does not leave much room to explore specific points in any detail, but in this case everything that needs to be said is included. Anyone familiar with Noah A. Trudeau’s volume on the Petersburg Campaign will notice immediately Axelrod’s use of extensive quotes from the Committee’s Report on the Conduct of the War. Axelrod also utilizes extensive quotes from various reports that make for a very choppy read. I find this to be incredibly distracting. It is the job of the historian to interpret for the reader and while I sympathize with the idea of allowing historic figures to “speak for themselves” I personally find it difficult to keep track of the author’s analytical points. In the case of the Joint Committee Reports the inclusion of extensive passages can be misleading given the fact that the individuals in question are pointing the finger and covering their asses. In this case analysis is essential.
The final year of the war in Virginia has received a great deal of attention from historians over the past few years. This can be explained, in part, by the move away from the Lost Cause assumption of the inevitability of Confederate defeat following the Gettysburg campaign; more importantly, however, historians are asking more analytical questions about the evolution from “limited” to “hard war” as well as addressing interpretive themes stemming from the “New Military History.” The Petersburg Campaign and the battle of the Crater in particular offer an ideal case study with which to examine the relationship between the battlefield, home front, and politics along with important questions surrounding the introduction of United States Colored Troops to the battlefield. Unfortunately, the battle of the Crater – best known for the failed attempt on the part of the Union Ninth Corps to break the growing siege of Petersburg by tunneling and detonating 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a massive attack – has received only scant attention by historians. The publication of The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” (Lynchburg, VA, 1989)) by Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel remains the only book-length study of any merit, although its focus is limited almost entirely to the battlefield. Although a timely release, Alan Axelrod’s similarly titled book adds very little to our understanding of the battle or how it fits into the broader campaign.
While Axelrod clearly intended to write for the general reader, even on that level this book falls short. Analysis of the battle rarely moves beyond the basic outline of the planning and execution of the mine as well as accounts of the horrific fighting that took place on July 30, 1864. Archival materials on the Crater abound, but unfortunately, Axelrod bypasses these sources altogether along with much of the secondary sources that are readily accessible to historians. Instead Axelrod relies overwhelmingly on the Official Records as well as the reports from the Committee on the Conduct of the War; the result is a top-down picture that never penetrates to the level of the common soldier and his experiences both in the earthworks and in battle. The absence of research materials in this study makes it impossible to say much of anything about how this battle was experienced by the men on both sides as well as the residents of Petersburg who were directly affected by the fighting. The most significant oversight in this regard is Axelrod’s failure to acknowledge the importance of the presence of black Union soldiers, which Confederates clearly acknowledged as nothing less than a slave uprising and a threat to the South’s white racial hierarchy. Analysis of the racial aspect of this battle can tell us much about the changing racial boundaries in both the North and South brought about as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. Similarly, Axelrod offers very little analysis in terms of how this battle fits into the Petersburg Campaign or the evolution of the war through the end of 1864.
Check out the lyrics:
My master was a good man
He used to treat me kind
When I seen him killed in battle
I swear I lost my mind….
And black is nothing other
than a darker shade of Rebel grey