Morgan Freeman on 60 Minutes

Spinning Clio includes an interesting post on the Morgan Freeman interview by Mike Wallace which aired on 60 Minutes this past Sunday. Their discussion of black history month was particularly interesting. When asked about it, Freeman dismissed it out of hand. He finds it unacceptable to relegate black history to one month. “Black history is American history” Freeman asserted. When pressed by Wallace that it may be more difficult to eradicate racism without setting aside the time, Freeman responded: “How are we going to get rid of racism? Stop talking about it?”

As a high school teacher who emphasizes African American history throughout the year I make it a point to integrate it into the broader narrative w/0 singling it out. I agree with Freeman that black history is American history, but I would go even further to say that black history exemplifies the process by which the boundaries of freedom are expanded. My students sometimes wonder why we spend so much time (relative of course to their last class in American history) studying “black” topics. My answer is always the same. Issues of race have always been paramount in our history from the introduction of slavery to the establishment of an antebellum slave society to the legal nightmare of Jim Crow which lasted well into the 20th century. Issues of race must play a crucial role in the history curriculum because it continues to shape politics and society at large. Americans are obsessed with race and yet fail miserably in thinking seriously about how race has defined this nation’s history. It seems we find it to be either too depressing or it conflicts too sharply with our progressive ideals of freedom. On the one hand black history month is dangerous as it seems to countenance the idea that the subject exists on the fringes of the broader narrative. At the same time it does reflect the historical balance of power between those who have controlled the content of our preferred national narrative and those who have been left behind.

Top 10 at North and South Magazine

Brett Schulte over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading posted a summary of the latest issue of North and South. Six historians debate “The Ten Greatest Successes of the Civil War.” Schulte finds it surprising that many of the panelists focused on non-military events thus “discount[ing] the military side of things.” He concludes, “It was a WAR after all.” Let me start out by saying that I can’t stand when N&S does this kind of thing. It smacks of entertainment; there is very little that one can take away that is worth seriously considering. That said, what does emerge from this exchange is the ascendency of non-military events (namely emancipation) over the battlefield. The Emancipation Proclamation emerged early on the lists of 4 of the 6 commentators. Gerald Prokopowicz doesn’t even mention a battlefield moment until #6 (Jackson and Lee at Chancellorsville). I for one am not surprised by their choices. Perhaps this does point to the relative success of social/political history within the academy. Or perhaps it is just common sense. The Emancipation Proclamation clearly changed the course of the war in a way that no battlefield event can compare. In 1860 few people would have predicted that within 5 years slavery would be abolished. Not only was the price of slaves continually rising, but as William Link has recently shown in his fine book Roots of Secession, slaves were being employed in a wider range of jobs. Without a war some historians have speculated that slavery could have continued into the first few decades of the 20th century. The Confederate states refusal to rejoin the Union placed slavery on a gradual course to extinction and paved the way for the recruitment of roughly 200,000 USCT. As we all know, at the beginning of the war Lincoln focused on Union as the primary goal of the war. Not until the summer of 1862 did he push for a preliminary emancipation proclamation and this was done out of military necessity. I find Prokopowicz’s explanation of its importance the most convincing and the most complete: “As a military decree, it opened up a significant manpower pool for the North; as a foreign relations gesture, it ended any realistic hope of foreign recongnition for the Confederacy; as a domestic political stroke, it harnessed the growing willingness of Northerners to do what was necessary to win; as a moral act, even with all its limitations, it was still (as Lincoln said to Francis Carpenter in 1865) “the central act of my administration, and the great act of the nineteenth century.” What I glean from P’s brief summary is the Proclamation’s importance as both a political and military measure. Events off the battlefield shaped military policy and clearly, battles shaped political strategy. As military historians the panel is correct in emphasizing the importance of the Proclamation over more traditional responses.

Cold Harbor Mythology

I make it a point to show segments of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary to my Civil War classes. It is easy to see why it was so successful when it was first released. The blending of images, music, and Foote’s southern drawl is quite effective. When in class, however, I encourage my students to interpret the documentary as a historical source. We talk about the kinds of music used, the placement of certain images, and of course the narrative by David McCullough. I have to admit that sometimes I just want to sit back and take it all in, but at this point it is too tempting to critique. There are parts that I enjoy, but what stands out are the sections that go off the deep end. I hate the contrast in music and voice between Grant and Lee (Jason Robards does Grant, but I don’t remember who does Lee). The coverage of Lee’s surrender comes off as one big love fest; reunion seems to take place automatically.

The class recently watched the section on the 1864 Overland Campaign. The viewer is bombarded with the ghostly images of skeletons in the Wilderness left from the year before. Burns follows the armies to Cold Harbor which presents a perfect opportunity to share the standard bill of fare surrounding this particular bloodletting. Cold Harbor is interpreted as the paradigm example of the campaign’s ferociousness. We know whats coming: (1) 7,000 casualties in about 35 minutes; (2) The attack was suicide-Grant’s one regret; (3) And for the grand finale, Union soldiers sewed their names into their jackets for identification.

We do love our Civil War mythology and it is always difficult to part with it. Too bad none of the above is true. No one does a better job of debunking this than Gordon Rhea in his recent study, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June, 3, 1864. As to the 7,000 casualties, Rhea argues that the Union army suffered roughly 3,500 casualties, the majority in the first ten minutes of the attack. And those casualties were concentrated in four “green units recently transferred from the defenses of Washington and Baltimore. Veterans fighting alongside these units suffered light casualties. Though Rhea admits that the Union charge, “had little chance of succeeding” this does not imply that defeat was inevitable (p. 362). Only in hindsight can we say that the attack was a mistake. Union commanders bore part of the blame, including General Meade who “made no pretense of leadership.” (p. 363). As to the sewing of names on the part of Union soldiers in anticipation that their bodies would need to be identified (goes well with the inevitability argument), Rhea notes that apart from Horace Porter’s postwar account no other source confirms this persistent belief.

American Historical Association Abstract

I just finished my presentation for the AHA meeting in Philadelphia in two weeks. The paper reflects the beginning stages of the final section of my Crater manuscript. The paper examines the 1903 and 1937 Crater reenactments. In addition to my paper, Christopher Bates will present a paper on the culture of reenacting today. Professor Gregory Urwin of Temple University will serve as commentator. I recently discovered that he enjoys reenacting and even appeared in the movie Glory. The panel should be a real whoot. Here is an overview of the paper:

“Landscapes and the Lost Cause: An Analysis of the 1903 and 1937 Crater Reenactments”

Over the past few years, historians such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century. In Blight’s view the veterans on both sides of the
Potomac chose to assign the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the battlefield. The shared experiences of soldierhood was a theme that could bring former enemies together peacefully on old battlefields. The forging of bonds of valor between one-time enemies, however, required that questions surrounding emancipation and race be ignored. According to Blight, the success of what he calls the “white supremacist legacy” of the war over the “emancipationist legacy” guaranteed that the role of African Americans in the Civil war would be minimized to the point of non-recognition.

Battlefields played a crucial role in providing a landscape on which veterans of both sides could shape their preferred interpretations of the Civil War. Reenactments, reunions, and other commemorations that took place on the South’s battlefields allowed for the shaping of a public memory that not only promoted Lost Cause principles, but turned African Americans into what historian David Goldfield describes as “ghosts”, or “figments of white perceptions.” Understanding how public spaces such as battlefields came to be interpreted—as they were transformed into National Military Parks—and the consequences of that interpretation sheds light on the creation and maintenance of public memory.

While the emphasis on veterans’ reunions and postwar reminiscences reveal a great deal about the evolution of public memory surrounding Civil War battlefields in general, such an analysis remains limited in respect to more specific sites. The Battle of the Crater is a case in point. I argue that the reenactments of 1903 and 1937 go much further to explaining the gradual disappearance of African Americans from the public memory of this battle compared with more popular forms of commemoration such as reunions and monument dedications. Both celebrations occurred at important junctures, the former at a time when Virginia’s state legislature was instituting Jim Crow legislation, and the latter, which marked the beginning of the National Park Service’s oversight of the landscape. While reunions that took place on the Crater battlefield following the war received widespread coverage in both northern and southern newspapers, participation by the general public was limited. In addition to widespread media coverage, reenactments were viewed by tens of thousands of spectators. Audiences were not simply witnesses to a casual recreation of a Civil War battle, but played an integral role in attaching the landscape with a specific meaning that implied defense in the face of alternative interpretations.

Why Do Civil War Military Historians Hate Social History?

I’ve noticed a bit of hostility directed at a few of my posts that emphasize the importance of social history to the study of the Civil War. I find it just a bit curious as to why. Here are a few thoughts, none of which at this point I will go to the grave to defend. From one perspective there seems to be tension between strict military historians on the one hand and more academic historians who stress the tenets of the “New Military History” with its emphasis on social, economic, and political categories. The difference in language, tone and tendency to give short thrift to the detail of the battlefield tends to alienate non-academics. Both groups write for distinct audiences, though I believe that this is changing owing to a few Civil War historians who have made it a point to apply this new focus in a way which does not alienate popular readers. It should be pointed out that recent studies of Civil War soldiers and the increase in regimental histories are all products of the New Military History. Soldiers were not simply pawns to be manipulated by generals and military units were defined by various social relationships and their evolving connections with the home front and politics.

Both groups attempt to better understand military events, but at the same time they employ different assumptions in regard to what needs to be explained. Traditional military historians focus predominantly on the battlefield. Many are driven by the mantra, “The more detail the better” and there are plenty of readers who are eager to go along for the ride. When done right such a perspective can reveal the complexity and chaos of a Civil War battle. On the other hand, this approach has the potential to treat the battle as existing in a vacuum divorced from events off the battlefield. I’ve commented on this before so I will not repeat myself. There is a gamining psychology in this approach that is content to step back and take a God’s eye view of the field from a perspective where discreet units can be manipulated and consequences easily calculated. I suspect that for social historians the incredible amount of detail offered by traditional histories offers diminishing returns. It will come as no surprise to many of you that I agree. The two approaches are not necessarily at odds with one another. Historians in both camps can learn a great deal from one another; the most open-minded already do just that.

Was Gettysburg the Turning Point of the War? – Part 4

Read Parts One, Two, and Three

We can think of the events between 1861 and 1865 as a series of facts. In analyzing these facts historians will pick out those that stand in certain relations with one another. The most common relation in historical studies is that of cause and effect. Historians have offered a number of explanations to such questions as why the Civil War occurred and why, in the end, the Confederacy did not secure its independence. Though historians disagree over the answers to these questions, it is still reasonable to suggest that in principle there was a reason or set of facts that explains why the Civil War occurred and why the Confederacy lost in April 1865. What is important here is that the cause is itself a fact that can be discerned through historical investigation as a short in the wiring of a building could be a causal fact that might explain why a fire took place. In short, causal facts are part of the objective side of history; they are part of the historical past that the historian is attempting to explain.

Not all judgments are part of the objective side of history. For example, the conclusion that General Richard S. Ewell acted incompetently in not securing Culp’s Hill at the end of the first day at Gettysburg is a subjective judgment based on an evaluation of the available evidence. What makes this judgment subjective is that agreement or disagreement with this conclusion does not necessarily follow from some final fact. Even if historians agree on the relevant facts, no one conclusion surrounding Ewell’s competence as a commander necessarily follows.

Judgments surrounding turning points should be seen along these lines. Even if all of the facts between 1861 and 1865 are known, no one conclusion regarding which event(s) constitutes the turning point necessarily follows. And the reason is simple: Historians employ assumptions in making these decisions that are themselves subjective.

Historians employ an array of assumptions concerning when large-scale conflicts such as wars are decided. They may be drawn to events in the early stages or hold back until close to the end. This may be the difference between interpreting Antietam and its political consequences and Lee’s retreat from Petersburg as the turning point of the war. Such decisions may be based on judgments surrounding Lee’s ability or inability to pose a threat of any kind to Union offensives at various times. It is also conceivable that the turning point occurred at the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 assuming as Shelby Foote has that the South never “had a chance to win that war.”

Other assumptions include the relative importance historians have assigned to events in the Eastern as opposed to the Western Theater. Both Richard McMurry and Thomas Connelly have challenged what they judge to be an inordinate amount of attention paid to military operations in the east. According to McMurry “the war was won or lost” in the west. Historians have elevated in importance such battles as Chattanooga and its vital rail links, Pea Ridge and Wilson’s Creek, which resulted in Union control over the slave state of Missouri and which Lincoln believed was necessarily to hold if the Union was to continue and more notable events such as the battles of Vicksburg, Perryville and Atlanta.

Gary Gallagher has argued that the Eastern Theater was psychologically more important for both North and South than the West. Northern leaders, including Lincoln, Senator Charles Sumner and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton believed Lee provided the greatest obstacle to Union victory. Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac on more than one occasion, but never inspected Union armies in the west. Southerners, even in the Deep South, according to Gallagher, acknowledged Lee’s army as constituting their best chance for attaining their freedom. Lee’s victories provided a rallying point which carried the Confederacy “beyond the point at which its citizens otherwise would have abandoned their quest for nationhood.”

Final installment tomorrow