A Tough Review

Yesterday I completed a review of a new book on the battle of the Crater for the Journal of Southern History.  It was one of the most difficult book reviews I’ve had to write in recent years, in large part, because I could find nothing positive to say about it.  No doubt, the fact that I wrote it for an academic journal shaped my assessment of the book.  I had to critique the formal argument (to the extent that there is one) along with an analysis of how the study contributes to our understanding of the Civil War and fits into the relevant historiography.  Throughout the review I was conscious that I was writing for fellow historians and not a general audience.  This is not to suggest that a reviewer does not have an obligation to offer an honest critique for a non-academic audience, but clearly their interests diverge at some point.  I should note that most of my points would have been included regardless of venue.  Given the dearth of studies on the Crater the book at least provides a basic overview of the important figures involved as well as the planning and execution of the mine along with the flow of battle.  I have no doubt that for most general readers their interest in the battle ends here.

The most difficult part of a negative review is that it falls far from my feelings of admiration for anyone who can complete a book-length work of history – even if I don’t have anything positive to say about it.  I have found it very difficult to muster the kind of focus necessary to finish my own book project on the Crater.  It takes a certain ability to isolate one’s self for long periods of time and to block out potential distractions.  I am not very good at this as I love to play my bass guitar, browse blogs, watch bad television, and hang out with the wife whenever possible.  So, if you happen to be the recipient of a negative review by me know that you have my utmost respect for your accomplishment.

A Humbling Geography Test

[via Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted]

If you have a few minutes (you are reading this blog which suggests that you have plenty of time) check out The Traveler IQ Challenge.  I was both pleasantly surprised by what I know and horrified by what I thought I knew about the location of major cities, capitals, and significant historic sites.  On the world map challenge, and after a few attempts, I managed to complete 9 of 12 levels.  The precision of the placement of the flags and the measurement of how far you are from the actual destination is both rewarding and potentially embarrassing.  I had the most difficulty with Africa and the islands in the South Pacific.  Apart from Egypt and South Africa I was struck by how little I know about the geography of these two places.  Even when I had placed the flag within the correct national boundaries I was usually way off the mark. The nice thing about this little test is that it does help you learn some of the more obscure places; no doubt the unfamiliarity with certain languages makes it extremely difficult to even identify the correct hemisphere.  Finally, the simplicity of placing flags on a map and the race against the clock makes this mildly addicting.  So give it a shot.

Best of 2007

It’s time for the third annual installment of the best in Civil War books and blogs.  This is an opportunity to acknowledge those books that have been both a pleasure to read and which have left me with a great deal to ponder.  Once again this list reflects just a fraction of what I’ve read during 2007.  Congratulations to the winners.  Awards are in the mail.

Civil War Memory’s Hall of Fame: I developed this new category to honor some of my favorite readers.  This blog has attracted some real characters over the past two years and their devotion to this site and conviction that I am at war with all things southern is worth acknowledging.  I had a few people in mind for this award, but in the end I had to go with Jim (a.k.a. Anonymous).  When it comes to loyal readers few can match the amount of time Jim spends on my site or the time it has taken him to write negative feedback on at least 20 history blogs.  I couldn’t ask for better publicity.

Best Blog: HNN’s Cliopatria Note: All that needs to be said is that I begin each day with Ralph and the gang.

Best Civil War Blog: Craig Warren’s Civil War Literature.

Favorite History Book of 2007: Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).  Note: I am only about half-way through the book, but it is already clear that this is the work of a very talented historian.

Best Overall Civil War Military History: Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York, Knopf, 2007.

Best Campaign Study: Scott C. Patchan, Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007). 

Best Biography: Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Viking, 2007).  Note: This is easily the single best volume on Lee.

Best Confederate Study: Jason Phillips, Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007).

Best Union Study: Garrett Epps, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (New York: Holt Publishers, 2007 [paperback edition]).

Best Slavery Study: David W. Blight, ed., A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom (New York: Harcourt, 2007).

Best Memory Study: Robert Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007).

Best Edited Collection: John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer, and Dawn Vogel, eds., Lincoln Revisited (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).

Best Social History: Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought: Family & Nation in Civil War Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

Best Myth Buster: Micki McElya, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Some good things to look forward to in early 2008: Joseph Glatthaar’s, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (March), Drew G. Faust, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (January), and William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (February).

From My Family To Yours

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!  My favorite holiday image.  The only thing better would be a painting of Stonewall celebrating Christmas with his slaves.

"Janie Corbin and Old Jack" by M. Kunstler

A Clarification of Values

Today I turned down a wonderful job offer to work as an education director for a museum.  The job would give me the opportunity to develop curricular materials for teachers and students, organize conferences and other workshops around the country, and work with some of the most talented Civil War historians in the country.  Since my interview on Tuesday I’ve been wracking my brains trying to figure out what to do.  I could not have been more impressed with the group that interviewed me; their commitment to educational outreach was solidified for me within the first five minutes.  In short, the job would be both challenging and rewarding. The first thing I said to my wife was that it would be incredibly exciting and enjoyable to work with the individuals who interviewed me.  Veteran readers of this blog know that I’ve been looking to reach out beyond the classroom  and this has led to different projects, including the development of exhibits at Monticello as well as presentations on how to teach the Civil War.  In the coming weeks I will begin a book project with my thesis adviser that will help teachers to better utilize Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in the classroom. 

As I thought carefully about what to do I kept coming back to the same question.   As much as I viewed this particular change in career as an opportunity I wondered whether it would offer an experience comparable to what I get from teaching.  While I would be working with children of various ages it would not be over time.  My job allows me to build relationships with individuals that often outlast the time in the classroom.  A number of my students have gone on to study history and a few have even become teachers.  What I am most proud of is the the number of students who have said that they didn’t care much for the subject of history until my class.  I consider myself very lucky to have found a profession that allows me to spend time studying my passion, which is American history, as well as working with energetic and curious young adults.  I have complete freedom to shape my courses , including electives, and I am encouraged to take chances in developing curriculum.  On most mornings I wake up bright-eyed and anticipating a fun day.  What I love most is the sense of possibility that the classroom offers and a chance to learn something new during the course of the day.  I work with an incredibly talented and caring faculty and while I rarely get to see how students turn out I know I’ve made a difference for many over the years.  How many people can truly admit to this?

I also don’t mind admitting that I enjoy my summers and other vacations.  No doubt the time off makes it possible for me to engage in research and other writing projects – most of which would take a backseat in lieu of a full-time position.  My graduate degree in history from the University of Richmond was paid for entirely by my school and the administration continues to encourage me to attend conferences and other academic functions.  In many ways I lead a life not much different from a college professor.  All I need is a sabbatical and I am good to go.

In the end I still absolutely love the classroom and so that is where I want to be for the near future.   The nice thing about my situation is that I can continue to reach out in ways that  this job opportunity offered and not have to sacrifice what I value.  Hey, my choice also means I will continue to have time to blog, which I know is a horrifying thought for some.  I am truly a lucky guy. 

Enjoy the Holidays.

Responses to Vandalism of Confederate Statue in Montgomery

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the dearth of reactions to the arrest of three white teenagers for the recent vandalism of a Confederate statue in Montgomery, Alabama.  The rush to judgment sheds light on our assumptions about how race ought to determine how we remember the past. From the Florida Times-Union:

“Well, I was dead wrong in my perception that they were black,.  The fact that they were (white) makes it even more less forgivable because it enabled people to jump to false conclusions.”  — John Napier, former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans

“I could have betted $100 million that they weren’t black. Black people don’t do things like that.  I knew they were white and they were educated whites because of the Nat Turner reference.” — State Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery (African American)

“I tend not to be surprised at anything in this day and time.  I haven’t tried to analyze that little scribbling they did. If indeed that was a reference to Nat Turner, it seems quite strange that high school students would know about that and not about their own history.  There might be some left-wing bozo they’ve been teaching history with.” — Leonard Wilson, division commander of the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans

Hey Mr. Wilson, maybe these kids do consider Nat Turner to be part of their history.  Maybe they don’t draw artificial distinctions around what is worth remembering.

McPherson and Inevitability: A Brief Comment or Dimitri Gets it Wrong Again

It’s been quite some time since Dimitri Rotov took one of his cheap swipes at James McPherson so I guess we should have anticipated one before the end of the year.  Dimitri doesn’t disappoint.  According to Dimitri, Nelson Lankford’s excellent book Cry Havoc! (which is now out in paperback) is "an attack on James McPherson’s and the Centennialist’s "inevitability of war" thesis."  I know this is going to sound condescending, but I do wonder whether Dimitri has ever read Battle Cry of Freedom or anything else by McPherson.  Students in my Civil War classes know that McPherson does not subscribe to some kind of inevitability thesis.  In fact, one of the fundamental distinctions that McPherson makes in a recent North and South magazine article (Vol. 4, No. 1. 2000), which I teach, is that even after Lincoln’s election in November 1860 the war was not inevitable.  After surveying the historiography on the cause of the war which cites both political and economic differences between north and south, McPherson notes that, "Such disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system."  He then concludes that "The Civil War was not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a "repressible conflict," as [Wesley] Craven titled one of his books. (p. 15)  Towards the end of the article which covers the period between the secession of the Deep South and Lincoln’s inauguration, McPherson states very clearly that the "refusal [on the part of Lincoln and his administration] to countenance the legitimacy of secession did not make war inevitable."  (p. 21).  Chapters 8 and 9 in Battle Cry work to explain the complexity of events that followed Lincoln’s election right through the showdown at Fort Sumter in April 1861. 

If anything, it’s McPherson’s scholarship which is largely responsible for challenging the inevitability thesis. 

Getting to Know Virginia’s SOL’s

For a couple reasons that I will not go into I’ve been exploring Virginia’s SOL’s for the survey course in American history.  My specific focus has been the period between 1850 and 1880, though I did spend a little time exploring the late colonial period through the Revolution.  I tend to think that the SOL’s are more a reflection of a lack of talented history teachers in the public schools rather than an external set of standards imposed.  This is unfortunate for those history teachers trained in the field and quite capable of developing their own curriculum that have the potential of going beyond the basic requirements of the SOL’s. That said, after perusing the outline for the American history course I have to admit that it’s not all a disaster.  For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia’s SOL’s you should first know that the outline of the course is divided into four columns which are headed from right to left: "Essential Understandings" (EU), "Essential Questions" (EQ), Essential Knowledge" (EK), and "Essential Skills" (ES).  I like the progression from the abstract in the far left column to concrete skill-based requirements which ideally will demonstrate some mastery of an abstract idea and essential facts.  Essential skills tend to revolve around geography, sequencing events, and analysis of primary and secondary sources, and the appreciation of multiple perspectives in history.   This is essentially my course in a nutshell.

Where my course differs, however, is in the content.  I can’t help but think that some of the SOL content is politically motivated or simply the result of compromises made between various interest groups.  The result is a confused overview of the Civil War era that, if followed carefully, must leave some teachers (and students) confused.  Here are a few examples that I find particularly troubling.  One of the things that struck me is the extent to which the SOL’s bounce back and forth between citing regional differences over the proper interpretation of the Constitution or states rights v. federal government, and slavery.  Both positions are expressed but there is never a point in the outline where a coherent statement is expressed.  As EK students are to acknowledge that "Northerners believed that slavery should be abolished for moral reasons."  More interesting is the choice to use Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as examples of differing views on the respective powers of the states and federal government.  Why Lee is chosen is beyond me given that he was not a political thinker or responsible for a cogent statement about this nature of the federal government.  One of the EQ’s asks students to explain, "How Lincoln’s view of the nature of the Union differ[ed] from Lee’s."  Why not use Jefferson Davis or some other southern politician?  When did Lee become a significant commentator on the nature of the constitution? 

Moving to the war years students must be able to identify the following leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglas.  While I have little quarrel with the list I do wonder why Jackson is elevated to the level of Douglas, Davis, and Lincoln.  I am not denying that it is not worth studying the life of Jackson, but is he that important to understanding the evolution of the war in Virginia and elsewhere?  Yes, the teacher can mention that he performed extremely well in battle and that he was a religious zealot, but how exactly does that get him to the top of the heap?  I don’t get it.  During the two weeks my AP classes have spent on the Civil War I may have mentioned Jackson twice and both time briefly.  There are way more important people that need to be understood.  Under EK Jackson is described as a "talented" Confederate general.

Given my recent emphasis on black Confederates you will be happy to know that "African Americans fought in both the Union and Confederate armies."  This has to be one of the most confused set of bullet points that I’ve even seen.  There is no explanation beyond this which is incredibly disturbing.  I have to wonder what your average teacher does with this information without any familiarity with the literature on the subject.  One has to imagine that in classes throughout Virginia students are finishing the year with the belief that the experiences of blacks in both armies was comparable.  It then goes on to say that "The Confederacy often used slaves as naval crew members and soldiers."  One of the bullet points notes that "African American soldiers were discriminated against and served in segregated units under the command of white officers."  Unfortunately, given the earlier bullet point that blacks served as soldiers in both armies it is impossible to know which army is being cited.  Perhaps they were fully integrated in Confederate armies and years ahead of the U.S. Army. (LOL) [While we’re at it let’s go ahead and teach Intelligent Design in their biology classes and get it over with.]

Finally, Virginia’s students learn that "Reconstruction policies were harsh and created problems in the South."  By what standards are federal policies to be considered harsh?  And for whom were they harsh?  Did 4 million black southerners respond to federal policies as their white neighbors?  Well, I think that’s about enough for now.