Is Interest in the Civil War Petering Out?

Dimitri reports lackluster sales for popular Civil War titles in 2005. What do these numbers mean? Hard to tell, but my guess is that we are in need of another kick-start to revive the industry. The generation that lived through the Civil War centennial celebrations is no longer buying books at the same rate and the interest that Ken Burns’s PBS documentary sparked is all but played out. Perhaps the Civil War sequicentennial and/or Lincoln’s bicentennial will attract new readers. I remain skeptical. It is too early to predict how these lackluster sales will impact the publishing industry-something I know nothing about.

Interest in the Civil War is declining. A perfect place to see this is in the attendance at your local Civil War roundtable. (See my post, “RIP: Civil War Roundtables” for more detail.) Of course those interested in “Civil War entertainment” continue to run amuck and declining book sales constitute no threat whatsoever.

Bridging the Divide: Academic v. Popular History

Over at A Lincoln Log, Brian Dirck comments on the awarding of the Lincoln Prize to Doris Kearns Goodwin. Dirck seems ambivalent about the committee’s choice by noting that while he has trouble with Goodwin’s interpretation, the book has sold well and presents an entertaining and highly readable narrative for the general public. The rub between interpretation and narrative led Dirck to a question at the end of the post: So how exactly does one bridge the gap between professional, technical history and readable, entertaining history? Or should we even try?

One way to answer this question is to simply say that the two goals are mutually exclusive. Professional historians utilize the latest analytical distinctions and categories in the on-going process of scholarly revision. Popular writers focus on writing an entertaining story for the general public and tend to concentrate on character development in an attempt to convey some kind of meaning. I tend not to see these choices as mutually exclusive, especially in the area of Civil War history. There is much more interaction between professional historians and lay readers compared with other areas of history. It is not unusual to see the likes of James McPherson or Gary Gallagher leading a tour of a battlefield or presenting a paper to a roundtable. On the other side there is nothing unusual to see essays and books published by non-academics in professional journals and university presses. We are lucky that this field of study is defined by a great deal of interaction between academic and non-academic historians. A number of historians in addition to the two just mentioned come to mind, including William Freehling, Gordon Rhea, William Marvel, Ed Ayers, Robert Krick, and the list goes on.

This fluid relationship, however, does create tension. Professional historians tend not to be interested in what I’ve dubbed the “entertainment factor” of the Civil War. You won’t see too many academics at an SCV rally or reenactment. I find that most Civil War “buffs” are not interested in the more academically-oriented debates (and there is not anything necessarily wrong with this). They tend to be interested in the military side of the equation. That, however, is a problem for academics like Mark Grimsley and other professional military historians (check out the guest post on Grimsley’s site titled, “Why Military History Still Sucks“) who interpret the Civil War through the lens of the “New Military History” which views the battlefield within a much broader social/economic and political perspective. The general rule for those who focus solely on the battlefield tends to be the more detail the better rather than applying and testing the latest analytical models.

And then there are those from the various “Heritage” groups who claim to be defending “their history” from “Northern Liberal” aggressors who have invaded the academy. The debates surrounding Lincoln, secession and black Confederates are predictable down to the suggestions that you read Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln or Charles Adams’s When in the Course of Human Events.

Most people who call themselves Civil War “buffs” or “enthusiasts” have little patience with academic debate because they either have a narrow interest in military affairs or have already decided for themselves the answers to fundamental questions. The other problem is that any serious consideration of the more complex questions and debates through a survey of the relevant literature demands a great deal of time, which most people simply do not have. My guess is that most people want a good story that allows them to empathize or sympathize with the past. It is disappointing that more professional historians have not taken on the challenge of writing serious history for popular audiences. There is nothing contradictory about writing scholarly books in a way that attracts a wide readership. My fellow Civil War bloggers and our readers have demonstrated that there is quite a demand out there for serious history.

Military Executions in the Confederacy

I’ve been collecting information and sketching ideas on the topic of civilian morale in Virginia in 1864. I want to approach this question from as many perspectives as possible. There is no simple answer. I recently went back to review earlier research on Confederate military executions, which I believe provides some information relevant to understanding morale on the home front. While any conclusions are speculative, I found that both soldiers and civilians continued to support the practice of military executions throughout the war as a way to maintain the integrity of the army and as a form of nationalism. Here is a sample of execution accounts in Southern newspapers and a brief account of how the subject was used in a theatre production in Atlanta in 1862.

Though it is almost impossible to gauge the reaction of civilians to the army’s practice of executing transgressors, clearly many did know of the practice since numerous newspapers included accounts of executions, some of them being quite graphic. Confederate Captain J. R. Rhodes’ execution in September 1863 was covered by both the Richmond Examiner and the Augusta Daily Chronicle & Sentinel from Georgia. The primary goal of the inclusion of such accounts in newspapers was to deter civilians from tempting soldiers from the ranks with the threat of death. “What a sad warning to the living! Will any profit by it?” The Chronicle answered its own question by noting simply that, “Some may; others will not.” The Examiner took a different approach to sharing the dangers of desertion with its readers by including a more graphic account of Rhodes’ execution:

Attention! The command startles every one. The doomed man sinks down upon his coffin and fixes his eyes upon the twelve bright tubes that are leveled at his breast, but drops his head the next moment. Fire! – a dash, a report – and as the white smoke is slowly lifted by the breeze a mangled, lifeless form is seen lying beside the coffin, and the long lines of soldiers shrink back from the sight.”

The Richmond Daily Dispatch offered its readers a detailed account of a mass execution that took place on September 5, 1863. The condemned were ten men from the Third North Carolina Infantry of Brigadier General George H. Steuart’s brigade accused of desertion and murder. The account took readers from the placement of the stakes in the ground, the arrival of the condemned and their final moments. Though the witnesses were veterans of the “blood and carnage of twenty battlefields . . . they beheld with uncontrollable emotion the solemn preparation for the execution of the condemned, and seemed to be penetrated with the solemnity of the religious services which were being carried on.” The final moments of the accused were particularly poignant. As the firing party was being deployed, “the prisoners broke out into loud and frequent appeals to the Almighty to have mercy on their souls and pardon their sins.” The account ends with the “corpses of ten men hung in the horrible relaxation of death to the stakes where they were pinioned.” The Lynchburg Virginian also offered to its readers a detailed account of the March 1864 execution of privates G.W. Burnside, G. Whitt, and Jacob Winnery – all served in the 36th Virginia Regiment. Perhaps out of consideration for the families of the three condemned men, the writer made it a point to note their conduct during those final moments. According the observer, “Throughout the whole affair the three bore themselves very bravely; few men have ever met death with more calmness and resignation.”

Accounts that provided such detail sent a clear message to a number of parties, including men in the ranks, loved ones back home, and those enlisted men who had already deserted. Some newspapers chose to forego lengthy accounts and instead simply provided readers with lists of those sentenced to be executed. On May 5, 1864, the Augusta Daily Constitutionalist provided its readers with a list of twenty names from men serving in units from all over the Confederacy who were scheduled to be executed “within the next ten days.” For those already executed, the newspaper included basic information as it did in the case of Private Henry Jerome who served in the 17th South Carolina Regiment and was found to be “twice guilty [of] deserting his colors.” The newspaper described him as a “man of mature years, short in stature, quiet demeanor” and its readers were left knowing that Jerome was survived by a wife and three children. In addition to first-hand accounts of executions, most newspapers included notices from individual units for those absent without leave; monetary rewards were often given for a successful capture or information leading to the return of a soldier. The Richmond Daily Dispatch for August 22, 1862 listed notices from the First Maryland Regiment, W. Gordon McCabe’s battery, 34th North Carolina Regiment, Thomas Artillery, and the 48th and 58th Virginia Regiments.

Editorials also provide insight into popular perceptions of the necessity and justification for executions. The Richmond Daily Dispatch contained one such editorial in the wake of an execution that took place in August 1862. The newspaper urged its readers to see desertion as a “crime” and executions as the only remedy, “unless we have determined to abandon the cause altogether.” The editorial goes on to criticize the “clemency” of the Executive and its “disastrous effect” on unit cohesion. What is most telling about this particular analysis of the necessity of executions is that the paper asks its readers to identify with the broader cause of Confederate independence and the virtues of sacrifice. Many surely sympathized with individual stories of soldiers deserting for the sake of family; however, the author reminded its readers that, “All have been called to the service of the country at enormous sacrifice.” According to the logic of the editor, “What would be an excuse for one man would be an excuse for all.” The lengthy discourse closed with an appeal to President Jefferson Davis to issue a proclamation offering a pardon to those who would voluntarily return, but not to interfere with the death penalty once that time had passed.

A military execution was also the subject of a play, which ran in the city of Atlanta in 1862. The playwright, known only as “The Lady of Atlanta”, used an execution to appeal to her fellow citizens not to take economic advantage of families with loved ones in the army. The three-act play, The Soldier’s Wife, tells the story of the Lee family. Act one opens with Mr. Lee about to leave for the army with the encouragement of his wife, who urges him to do his duty to his country. She assures him that the family will manage while he is away. Following his departure, Mrs. Lee finds it difficult to secure work due to illness and lack of available jobs. The local official in charge of financial relief, Mr. Thompson, gives her no assistance and instead pockets the money for himself. Meanwhile, on guard duty at the front, Mr. Lee expresses concern about his family. He has not received a letter from his wife for months, and fears that she is either dead or too impoverished to afford the price of postage. He resolves to desert and return home. Before he arrives home, however, his family is evicted for non-payment of rent and end up wandering through the snow covered woods where they all die of exposure. Soon after Mr. Lee discovers them and expresses his grief. He is then arrested for desertion.

The final act begins with Mr. Lee in prison waiting to be hanged for desertion. Before he is, however, he learns that the community has heard of his plight and vows never again will a family be neglected. Even Mr. Thompson has a change of heart and swears never to betray members of his own community in times of trouble. The play ends with an epilogue, in the form of a poem that begs the audience to remember and be generous to the families of those who are off fighting for their country. Mr. Lee waits for the moment of his execution while all his thoughts are of his lost family. He prays that God will forgive him as the officer arrives with two of Lee’s friends, Mr. Reid and the Lee’s good neighbor, Pat.

The overall message of this play is remarkable not simply for its explicit meaning, but for what it does not address. Not once does a character question whether Mr. Lee should be executed for deserting the army out of concern for his family. Instead, Mr. Lee emerges as a tragic figure whose death was unnecessary but for the selfish behavior of others. The Soldier’s Wife presents its viewers with a moral outlook that places the individual within a broader context of responsibility for families who struggled due to the absence of loved ones in the military. Desertions and executions could be prevented through the aid of others, but the punishment remained a necessity and morally justified none the less.

Doris Kearns Goodwin wins 2006

Doris Kearns Goodwin wins 2006 Lincoln Prize. Even with all the controversy the award is well deserved. In 1996 historian David H. Donald won the award for his biography, Lincoln. The award was fitting given the quality of the study and Donald’s previous scholarship on Lincoln, but the book was more a summation of the state of Lincoln historiography than an original contribution. This is not meant in any way to minimize Donald’s contribution; I say it to draw a comparison with Team of Rivals which does offer a slightly different slant on the Lincoln presidency. You may not agree with it, but it is well written and at times very thought provoking.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell In The Civil War

At some point I need to get to a movie theatre and catch up on new releases. One of the movies that I am looking forward to seeing is Brokeback Mountain. I love movies that challenge stereotypes, especially as they relate to race and gender. A few days ago I noticed my copy of Thomas Lowry’s, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War on the bookshelf. Here is a brief survey of some of the evidence for homosexuality within the ranks.

Towards the end of the war, two seaman John C. Smith and Louis Grant were charged with “improper and indecent intercourse with [each] other.” A witnessed testified that he viewed an act that was “indecent, immoral and a violation of nature.” (Poor guy) At about the same time two additional seaman were charged with committing “an unnatural crime.” A Virginia artillerist wrote home to his sister in 1865 and noted that, “The boys…rode one of our company on a rail last night for leaving the company and going to sleep with Captain Lowry’s black man.” Confederate general James J. Archer was known as “Sally” according to Mary Chesnut. Archer was imprisoned after his capture at Gettysburg, but while imprisoned engaged in behavior that attracted the attention of Capt. Robert Bingham of the 44th North Carolina: “We had a jolly party in our room tonight. Captain Taylor got some whiskey in a box under other things and so not noticed and we had General Archer down and they all got drunk together and got to hugging each other and saying that they had slept together many a time. Taylor called Archer and hugged him—cursed at every word, much to old [Chaplain] Allen’s discomfort.”

In the weeks leading up to the beginning of Grant’s Overland Campaign Massachusetts soldiers put on a ball. Since there were few women willing to take part drummer boys dressed as ladies for the occasion. In a letter home one of the attendees noted that “some of the real women went, but the boy girls were so much better looking they left…no one could have told wich [sic] of the party had fell on a hatchet.” From the perspective of another soldier: “We had some little Drummer boys dressed up and I’ll bet you could not tell them from girls if you did not know them…some of them looked almost good enough to lay with and I guess some of them did get laid with.” Of course it is difficult to know whether any of these passages can be interpreted in a straightforward sexual manner. That said, my guess is that given our phobia about sexuality few people are interested anyway—better to picture “Johnny” rather than “Sally” Reb.

Note: Lowry was recently interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio

Why The Civil War Matters: Additional Thoughts

What emotional place does our Civil War occupy within our broader national narrative? One way to get at this is to step back and reflect on our reactions to hearing about civil wars in other parts of the world. I would argue that for most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I may have captured something here that you can relate to or I may be completely off track.

I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layer that has been applied to this moment in our past, you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. Perhaps my choice of “entertainment” missed the mark in trying to describe how we relate to the war. I could have expressed the idea by saying that most Americans choose to celebrate the war in heroic terms. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I’ve said this before, but it worth repeating: I sometimes have the feeling that many are thankful for the Civil War. Even the guerilla warfare in the border areas, which perhaps comes closest to the chaos and raw violence of foreign civil wars, has been turned into our own little celebratory show—thank you Jesse James, William Quantrill, and John S. Mosby. I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. In that sense I can more easily empathize and/or sympathize with stories surrounding civil wars elsewhere. Once we get beyond our tendency to “play” with our Civil War characters one notices that we have more in common with the rest of the world than we like to think.

Why the Civil War Still Matters

Every year the city of Charlottesville welcomes the Virginia Festival of the Book, which is a week-long series of events related to the art of writing and the joy of reading. For the past two years my school has hosted a speaking event involving one of our faculty members. This year I’ve been invited to give the talk. My working title is “Why the Civil War Still Matters.” At this point I am sketching out some ideas that highlight both my interest in the experiences of those who lived through the war as well as how Americans have chosen to remember the war.

My main point is simple: The Civil War still matters because as a nation we have yet to take it seriously. We’ve turned the war into a celebration of our collective imagination that emphasizes values that are deemed to be safe by white Americans. We choose to celebrate military leaders without coming to terms with the fundamental social changes that their actions wrought. And we reflect on the minutia of the battlefield completely divorced from their causes and their consequences. As the story goes, battlefields are places where white Americans sacrificed for values of equal worth–no blame, no guilt, no right or wrong. I am struck by the extent to which many people will go to defend their well defined turf. Messiness is rarely tolerated in these circles. Safer to debate whether J.E.B. Stuart was responsible for Confederate defeat at Gettysburg than the controversy surrounding the recruitment of black soldiers or any other issue related to race. In one sense our fascination with the war is as much a function of a sincere interest in the war years as it is–though unstated by most–with the first generation of histories that emphasized Gettysburg, Lee, the common soldier, and the battlefield. We’ve allowed that initial postwar generation, with a set political and racial agenda, to define the terms of our continued interest in the war.

The real battlefield, as Frederick Douglass knew all too well, was between the competing definitions of freedom and national self-definition. The Civil War didn’t simply give us R.E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joshual L. Chamberlain, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, and Ulysses S. Grant with no strings attached. We are acting irresponsibly if we turn these men into overly simplistic forms of entertainment. We have to stop thinking of the Civil War as entertainment. Their lives revolved and were interwoven with larger issues having to do with issues of national identity. On one level our obsession with martial themes is evidence of our continued resistance to honestly deal with the incredibly complex problems and questions that the Civil War forced on this nation. It was one of those moments of clarification that however fleeting could have been embraced. To the extent that Americans embraced this opportunity to live up to its ideals during Reconstruction also reveals its limitations through its long-term consequences of Jim Crow and the need for a second Civil Rights Movement. Even as late as the Civil War Centennial Celebrations which took place during the height of the Civil Rights Movement organizers chose to celebrate a sanitized version of the war. What ashame as another opportunity to address more serious issues was missed.

Yes, I ramble on a bit here, but you will be subjected to moments of rambling for the next few weeks. Perhaps this is an ineffective way to organize my ideas for this talk, but let’s wait and see. I’ve noticed that of few of my previous posts have addressed subthemes that I will probably include in my talk.

Moving Beyond Gettysburg

Thanks to Eric Wittenberg for an excellent post on Gettysburg. I sometimes feel left out when others talk about the pull of Gettysburg. Often it is the result of an early childhood visit with the parents to the battlefield or the purchase of an illustrated history of the battle. Unfortunately, my parents never took me to Gettysburg even though we lived only a few hours away. The beach was my summer playground, though I remember a miserable trip to Williamsburg in the middle of the summer. Funny how things change. For me, the photograph of the Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den will always be more about the photographer than the final moments of a young soldier.

At the same time my lack of a personal history going back to my childhood could be seen as an advantage. I never had a chance to absorb the traditional story of the war as a forum where young men on both sides of the Potomac fought for values that could be celebrated by all Americans. For most Americans and Civil War “buffs” Civil War soldiers are blank slates when it comes to politics. The pervasiveness of this view is reflected in the way Americans chose to remember the war throughout the first few decades following the war and even in the work of prominent historians such as Bell I. Wiley in his classic study, Johnny Reb. It’s as if any mention of politics and ideology somehow spoils the show; we’re forced to talk about slavery, emancipation, the draft, and other examples of dissension both in the ranks and on the home front. More recent evidence for this can be seen in the hostile reaction to the National Park Service’s decision to re-examine its battlefield interpretations.

There is a gap between our popular and apolitical interpretation of Civil War soldiers and the work by historians on this very subject over the last few years. I am thinking of recent studies by James McPherson, Earl J. Hess, Reid Mitchell, and Chandra Manning who have emphasized the political and ideological beliefs of the men in the ranks. We study the changes in political culture during the first few decades of the 19th century, but somehow the obsession with the public realm disappears during the war. In fact, the men in Union and Confederate ranks were highly political and they followed events off the battlefield with an intensity that was unparalleled in the history of warfare up until that time. The Battle of Gettysburg took place in the summer of 1863 at a point when the shape of the war changed drastically. I want to know what Lee’s men thought about the Emancipation Proclamation as they moved north into Pennsylvania. How did those who were given orders to capture fugitive slaves along the march react? What did they think about the way the Davis administration was handling the war? How about their commitment to slavery? On the other side I want to know how Union soldiers were reacting to the Emancipation Proclamation and the likelihood that at some point they would be fighting next to a black man. What about the draft and their reactions to riots in New York City?

Not only were political concerns at the forefront of their thinking during the war, but it continued to shape their postwar remembrances. The activities of veterans provides an important case study of the ways in which memory and politics were continually interwoven following the war. Think about the decision of Union veterans to segregate GAR Camps throughout the country. More prevalent are the published accounts in Battles and Leaders and Confederate Veteran. Decisions to concentrate on the heroics of one-time enemies and ignore the divisive topics of slavery and emancipation were themselves political acts–a conscious decision to emphasize more benign national values as opposed to sectional disagreement. A more complete picture of wartime politics among the enlisted men reflects a certain level of consistency with their postwar experiences–both were political battles, one fought with the sword and the other a pen.

There is nothing more to learn about Gettysburg. We know where all the units were located and even if there are a few loose ends it doesn’t matter in the broader picture. There is no mystery to solve here. It would help to know more about their political lives. We do these men an injustice if we ignore this important aspect as they spent a great deal of time discussing political issues with comrades and in their letters home. Let’s stop treating these men as pawns manipulated by their superiors and now manipulated in our own mind games in an attempt to figure how the outcome may have turned out different.