Some Myths Die Hard

From across the ocean the Guardian offers a short review of recent Civil War novels, including E. L. Doctorow’s, The March. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read much fiction in recent years so I can’t comment on the titles reviewed. What is interesting to me is the way in which the reviewer sets the scene for Doctorow’s story of Sherman’s “March to the Sea” following the capture of Atlanta in 1864:

The March by EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and many other novels, follows the brutal progress of General William T Sherman’s army of 60,000 Union soldiers through the South in 1864. After setting Atlanta ablaze, they marched to the sea, then north through the Carolinas. Everywhere they slaughtered troops and livestock, burned cities, villages and plantations, and lived off the land. Their blithe disregard for civilians established a pattern that dogs American forces to this day.

I assume that remembering an embellished or exaggerated version of Sherman’s march makes for better fiction even for our friends across the ocean. Again, I can’t comment on Doctorow’s narrative, but this reviewer seems to view the subject of the story through the lens of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Few will doubt that Sherman’s march highlighted the final transition in Union policy to total war, but it should be remembered that this shift did not usher in a brand new style of warfare. As Mark Grimsley has demonstrated in his book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Policy Towards Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, the tenets of “hard war” policy had a rich history going back to the medieval ages. Grimsley also shows through an analysis of letters and diaries from Sherman’s men that very few commented on the march as a shift in policy. Rather the war had evolved from “limited” to “pragmatic” to “total” war policy. Both sides engaged in operations which collapsed the distinction between civilians and the battlefield. Of course Sherman’s policies stand out since much of the war was fought in the South. This is a wonderful example of how a certain perception of the past becomes ingrained in our collective memory thus bringing about a sense of “seeming understanding.”

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What Political Act Freed the Slaves?

Check out Mode for Caleb for a thorough analysis of the meaning of political action as it relates to the abolitionist movement. The question of how historians should understand the necessary and sufficient conditions of political behavior has tended to focus on those “who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal “politics,” whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, and forging cross-party coalitions” as opposed to those who like Garrison himself who refused to take part in the process or were disfranchised for one reason or another. I agree with Caleb that our definition of “political” must be extended along the lines of Steven Hahn’s analysis in his most recent award-winning book, A Nation Under Our Feet. From McDaniel’s post:

One of Hahn’s central–and most provocative–points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South “constituted themselves as political actors” and created a “distinctive African-American politics,” and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship “political” actors, Hahn argues, requires “a broad understanding of politics and the political … that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power” (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn’s book follows his “political actors” from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls “slave politics” (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing “slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical” prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

Such an analysis works well in the classroom in reference to the question of who freed the slaves. Most of my students when asked answer the question by pointing to Lincoln, but when asked to explain why he decided to free the slaves when he in fact did so they fall flat. Their image and explanation is of a president who somehow arrives at the conclusion in a vacuum. The act of issuing the proclamation itself becomes a sufficient explanation to the question of who freed the slaves. Hahn’s analysis forces us to step back to look for the external reasons that steered Lincoln in a certain direction. This year my students analyzed a range of source to better understand Lincoln’s decision. One of the first sources we looked at was a famous photograph of fugitive slaves followed by the beginning of the movie Glory which includes a scene showing the passing of escaped slaves along with the voice of Robert G. Shaw reading a letter home. I asked them to think about how fugitive slaves might impact the war effort for both sides. How might their presence in Union camps present both problems and opportunities for local commanders and eventually the Lincoln administration. More importantly, we tried to understand the motivations and intentions of the slaves themselves-as difficult as that is given the lack of traditional documentation. Still, it is not difficult to interpret their motivation and to do so by utilizing political terms. The very act of escape toward Union lines can be interpreted as political behavior. Hahn’s analysis reminds us of our bias towards written sources and the need to acknowledge behavior as an indication of political action. African Americans like Hiram Revels and others did not become political actors during Reconstruction, but moved into different political arenas. The goal is not to ignore Lincoln’s role in bringing about emancipation, but to acknowledge those, including those on the grass roots level, who engaged in political behavior that shaped the president’s policy of preserving the Union.

Introducing students to such an analysis also has a more immediate benefit. Since we tend to interpret political behavior as simply exercising the vote students often feel cut off from any opportunity to voice their concerns about national and world affairs. I’ve seen this intensify over the past few years. Understanding that political action that goes beyond simply casting a vote has the potential to bring about fundamental change can be empowering for those not yet of the voting age.

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Getting Right With McClellan

Teaching the Civil War in a survey course is never easy. I know way too much about the subject and there is only a limited amount of time to cover the essential themes. This year I spent more time on civil liberties along with my standard approach which is to address the important ways in which race enters the war. Through the analysis of primary documents we examine how slavery entered the secession debates, the evolution of the war as it relates to the Emancipation Proclamation, the recruitment of United States Colored Troops, and the problem of reconstruction towards the end of the war. Within that discussion I provide a very general overview of the war and the important commanders.

I use the photographs of Antietam to explain how technology altered the experience of battle and the scale of the carnage. It never fails that when I get to McClellan someone in the class questions why he was not more aggressive on the battlefield. The question itself betrays a set of assumptions about what is to be expected from a commander in the fall of 1862. Beyond that it reflects a tendency to treat McClellan as necessarily incompetent as a general. This picture of McClellan is part of an ingrained bias within the community of Civil War enthusiasts. We simply do not know how to take him seriously and it is always tempting to dismiss him in class with the back of the hand. This year I tried to get the students to see the war through McClellan’s eyes by emphasizing his political views and his adherence to a limited war philosophy. In doing so we read a few letters to his wife. Though the questions remained regarding his battlefield performance they at least understood some relevant background that informed their thinking.

The tendency to treat McClellan by dismissing him out of hand is common among history teachers. Teachers need to be careful that they don’t turn historical figures into caricatures. My concern is that it reinforces what these kids see in popular culture. If they watch the evening news or listen to one of those idiotic political talkshow hosts they are bombarded with character assasination and simplistic arguments that pass for serious commentary. We are not just teaching information about the past, but trying to encourage a certain kind of critical thinking. That thinking must include a temperament that does not rush to judgment, but involves serious reflection.

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A Star Is Born

Has anyone else noticed the number of new Civil War books that includes Jay Winik’s endorsement on the jacket? I find this to be very curious. As many of you know Winik published a very successful book back in 2001, titled April 1865: The Month That Made America. It sold well and made the short list of notable titles for that year in a number of publications. I enjoyed the book as it emphasized the importance of contingency during the final year of the war – a topic that Dimitri has been blogging on in recent days. Winik went a little too far interpreting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in reconciliationist terms, but all in all it was a solid effort. As far as I know this is Winik’s only book on the Civil War and as of today there is no indication of anything forthcoming. This raises the question of how and why certain people are asked to provide endorsements for new titles. Is it simply a matter of popularity? What qualifies someone to endorse a book? Have they read the book thoroughly? It’s hard to imagine that Winik and others have read through all of the titles they endorse. One is left with the belief that it reduces down to popularity. While I respect many of the names on the back covers, I rarely take their endorsements seriously. The danger is that positive endorsements by high profile names has the potential to distract potential consumers.

The best way to preview a book is to spend a few minutes reading the preface and acknowledgments. Look to see who the author cites for reading various chapter, offering suggestions, or sharing information. Check out the bibliography to see if the author utilizes archival sources and make sure the author is aware of the relevant secondary literature. Bibliographies (especially the archival sources) tell the reader a great deal about the seriousness of the research and the amount of time spent on the project.

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Town Hall Meeting

On Wednesdays my school holds a town hall meeting to discuss issues related to school or current events. Topics can be raised by both teachers and students. This week’s topic, which addresses the value of education, was suggested by one of the faculty and I was asked to present some brief remarks at the beginning to get the ball rolling. Here is what I came up with:

Today’s topic is the value and importance of education. As I was thinking about this last night I thought about those students that I’ve taught both at this school and elsewhere that seemed to value or took advantage of their education. The short list of students that came to mind has little in common. Their performance on standardized tests range from mediocre to perfect board scores and their grades fall all over the spectrum from straight A’s to averages that in a few cases warranted their dismissal from school. In the end all of these students have one thing in common. To one degree or another each of them has acknowledged that the classroom and the school at large is a place where they can explore questions and subjects that stand to reveal something important about the world and their place in it.

Whether they realize it or not, what each of these students has acknowledged is the role of luck in their individual lives. Think about it. None of us in this room chose to be born or when we were born, nor did we choose the color of our skin, sex, or even our own families. And if you look closely you will see that most of what you believe about the world, including your religious and political views has been shaped in large part by conditions that you have not chosen. The true value of education is that it has the potential to put you in a position where you can choose to look beyond the confines of this limited world view. To do this, however, requires a certain amount of discipline, maturity, and a healthy dose of humility. It involves nothing less than admitting the possibility that everything you believe may be wrong. Students who value education use their time in the classroom and elsewhere to reinvent themselves by taking seriously the proposition that the teenage years are much too early to set ones beliefs in stone. Experiences are limited and there is a universe out there that has much to teach if you are willing to look.

I’ve found over the few short years of my teaching career that relatively few students take full advantage of what is offered in a school like this. Most are comfortable doing what they are told in the hope of arriving at the next station in life where they will once again be comfortable being told what to do and so on. Let me leave you with a little secret: Schools are designed to allow for mediocrity to pass through its doors. I am always just a little amused when I hear from students at the end of the year that they only had to exercise a minimal amount of energy and focus to get through school. They wear it as a badge of honor. What those students fail to realize is that the system is set up to allow for this. They’ve achieved nothing beyond what the multitude have already celebrated. Schools can only present opportunities and possibilities to their students, but in the end it is up to each individual to choose whether the offer will be accepted.

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Foner on Black Confederates

This year I am using Eric Foner’s textbook, Give Me Liberty: An American History for my AP classes in American history. The book is wonderful as it includes a healthy dose of social history in addition to the more traditional narrative. The maps are well done and the book is beautifully illustrated. Of course, none of this matters if it is not well written. Luckily, Foner paid careful attention to ensuring that the narrative reads like a story rather than the standard dry and boring approach with a few clever metaphors sprinkled through. Here is Foner on the controversy surrounding black Confederates:

The growing shortage of white manpower eventually led Confederate authorities to a decision no one could have foreseen when the war began: they authorized the arming of slaves to fight for the South. As early as September 1863, a Mississippi newspaper had argued for freeing and enlisting able-bodied black men. “Let them,” it wrote, “be declared free, placed in the ranks, and told to fight for their homes and country.” But many slaveholders fiercely resisted this idea, and initially, the Confederate Senate rejected it. Not until March 1865, after Robert E. Lee had endorsed the plan, did the Confederate Congress authorize the arming of slaves.

The war ended before the recruitment of black soldier actually began. But the Confederate army did employ numerous blacks, nearly all of them slaves, as laborers. This later led to some confusion over whether blacks actually fought for the Confederacy–apart froma handful who “passed” for white, none in fact did. But the South’s decision to raise black troops illustrates how the war undermined not only slavery, but the proslavery ideology. “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning ofthe end of the revolution,” delcared Howell Cobb, a Georgia planter and politician. “If slaves make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

This is the first textbook that I’ve seen that addresses this issue head-on. It’s not clear to me whether Foner’s decision to include it was based on purely historical considerations or due to the continued controversy surrounding this issue. What I like about Foner’s short interpretation is that the issue is not simply whether blacks fought or not, but what the debate tells us about the contradictions within Confederate ideology.

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A Great Day In Class

All of my survey classes are right in the middle of the Civil War. We’ve been covering the standard territory, analyzing primary sources, and trying to understand the broader themes of the war. With a survey class time is limited so I tend to pick a few themes to explore in a bit more detail. This year I decided to spend time on Lincoln’s decision to suspend the writ of habeus corpus. Of course I did this as a way to make a connection with the current debate surrounding the president’s authorization of the NSA to spy on Americans without a court order. The classes read a short article on Lincoln and habeus corpus and answered a few questions plus a short article from Time which provided the basic background on the more recent controversy. I am amazed at how little my students know about current events so I thought it was a perfect opportunity to make some connections. I divided the board in half and began by addressing the broader issue of executive power, separation of powers, and national security. We started with Lincoln and discussed his reasons and the debate over his decision to suspend habeus corpus. The students were hooked from the beginning. They did a super job debating Lincoln’s arguments as well as well as the concerns of Chief Justice Taney and the Democrats in Congress. As the students debated I kept track of their main points on the board.

After about 25 minutes we moved to the question of executive authority in the NSA case. With some basic background of the NSA already in mind the class compared the present situation and the “war on terror” with the conditions present during the Civil War. They listened closely to one another and we ended up having a very engaged and informative debate about whether the president was justified in ignoring Congressional legislation. My goal was not to steer the students to any conclusion, but to at least give them a sense of what the debate is about and that the debate is part of a much broader question of checks and balances between the different branches of the federal government.

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New Crater Article

I’ve received some very positive feedback for my article, “William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History,” which was published in the December 2005 issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. My newest publication, “The Battle of the Crater, National Reunion, and the Creation of the Petersburg National Military Park: 1864-1937” will be published shortly in the Virginia Social Science Journal (2006, Vol. 41, pp: 13-34). Here is the abstract:

This essay examines how interpretations of the Battle of the Crater evolved as a result of various conditions within and beyond the state of Virginia between 1864 and 1937. As one of the few remaining sites from the Petersburg siege, the Crater attracted a steady stream of visitors following the war. Starting in 1875 and continuing into the twentieth century, Confederate and Union veterans met on the battlefield to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier and to promote sectional reconciliation. This study focuses specifically on the steps taken by veterans, politicians and preservationists to bring about a national park in Petersburg that would include the Crater site. An important component of this focus will be to show the extent to which African-American participation in this battle was ignored for the purposes of reconciliation. The disappearance of African-Americans from the historical terrain can be seen clearly in two reenactments, which took place in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. Reenactments provided a unique opportunity not only for veterans to meet with former comrades, but also for the community to construct and maintain a collective memory. Much of that collective memory underscored principles embodied in the Lost Cause and tended to reinforce white supremacy and national reunion.

Both the Mahone article and this one are part of my larger book manuscript on the Crater. Breaking the larger project down into individual articles has made it much easier for me to focus and achieve a certain amount of progress. It is of course very difficult to maintain focus on research and work as a full-time teacher. The next issue of the popular magazine America’s Civil War will include one of my articles which examines Confederate reactions to the Crater and the use of United States Colored Troops.

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