Planning Lee’s 200th Birthday Bash

The Robert E. Lee Commission of the Commonwealth of Virginia is planning a press conference for Thursday, January 19th to discuss plans for the general’s 200th birthday next year. What are its goals?

“The plans for the 200th birthday celebration include a variety of educational efforts and activities that will last throughout 2007. The goals of the Commission are to develop and support educational efforts about all facets of Lee’s life and his legacy in the Commonwealth, and to support and promote tourism in the Commonwealth with a variety of activities, events, and programs that will highlight locations around the state that were touched by or shaped by Robert E. Lee.”

And who serves on this commission in addition to co-chairman Delegate Benjamin A. Cline and Senator Emmett W. Hanger Jr.?

“Other members of the Lee Memorial Commission include Delegate Robert Hurt, Delegate Lynwood W. Lewis, Jr., Delegate Thomas C. Wright, Jr., Senator Frank M. Ruff, Jr., and representatives of Washington and Lee University, the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, the Virginia Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Virginia Division of United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as the Director of the Department of Historic Resources, the Director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause is alive and well and in good hands.


Former Professor and Neo-Nazi Explains

History News Network just posted an explanation from former Professor Jacques Pluss which purports to explain his membership in a Neo-Nazi organization. Here is a summary from HNN:

Editor’s Note: A year ago, in a controversial decision, Fairleigh Dickinson University fired historian Jacques Pluss after it was revealed that he was a member of the National Socialist Movement. (The school insisted he was fired for missing classes.) The decision drew national headlines. A Neo-Nazi on the faculty of a bona fide university? News accounts indicated that Pluss, an adjunct for several years at the school, was a popular teacher. Students said he didn’t bring his politics into the classroom. It didn’t seem to add up. It didn’t for a reason, says Mr. Pluss.

So why this post? Turns out that as an undergraduate at William Paterson College I worked as a T. A. for Professor Pluss. I remember him as a passionate teacher who cared deeply about his students. He gave me my first teaching experience by allowing me to lecture on Aristotle’s Ethics. I’ve read Pluss’s explanation, but to be honest I don’t have the faintest clue as to what to make of it.


Why the Civil War?

Linda Wheeler writes in the Washington Post about the origin of her interest in the Civil War. She recalls reading Landscape Turned Red by Stephen Sears and making her first trip to the battlefield:

“My trip that day was the beginning of an almost mystical relationship with Civil War history that has intensified with the years. I am particularly drawn to the fate of civilians who lived in small towns that were occupied by one side and then the other or who were caught up in battles on their streets. I can identify with them, as well as the soldiers, and their war experiences have become a part of my own memory.”

I can relate to this story. Back in 1994 I was a graduate student in philosophy finishing up an M.A. thesis at the University of Maryland. I had little knowledge of the Civil War. In fact, I don’t even remember studying it in high school. Than again, I don’t remember studying much of anything in high school. My advisor lived in Boonesboro, MD and I regularly spent the weekends dog sitting and listening to his comments on a tape recorder on my latest draft while he was off on golf trips. My first visit was quite an experience as I had little to occupy my time. I was left with a list of places to visit and at the top of the list was the Antietam battlefield which was a few miles away. Of course, I eventually made my way over and figured I would spend a few hours to kill some time. As I walked out of the Visitors Center to begin my self-guided tour, I noticed a guided tour just about to leave. I decided to tag along since I had no sense of the land and really no idea of what to do or see. The guide took us to the Dunker Church and the Cornfield and described the action that took place. It’s difficult to describe what happened, but I found myself more and more engrossed in the descriptions of the battle and his account of the civilian situation. The tour lasted about an hour; I walked around a bit more, but ended up leaving. I spent the rest of the day thinking about what I had seen and heard.

I ended up going back the next day. While in the Visitors Center I noticed the guide, introduced myself, and thanked him for the tour. Turns out it was Ted Alexander who is one of the historians at the battlefield. We talked a bit and I asked him if he could recommend a book on the battle. He recommended Landscape Turned Red, which I bought and began reading. I spent a few hours reading the book while I walked the battlefield all the while trying to connect Sears’s narrative to what I was seeing. The following 3 weekends were spent on the battlefield reading through the book at the specific locations described by the author. I was hooked. Little did I know that my newfound interest would turn into an obsession and ultimately a change of career. Whenever I see Ted I like to remind him that he is largely responsible for my passion, though sometimes it feels more like a disease.


Student Research Papers: The Final Product

Well, I am sitting here in my office grading midterms and writing student comments. It’s a busy time of the year and the realization that spring break is more than a month away doesn’t make the situation any better. I received the final essays from my Civil War class. I taught a research seminar course that was structured around the Valley of the Shadow. Students were expected to collect resources from the database and read additional secondary sources. The final essays look really good, though they run the spectrum in terms of overall quality. The best papers were written by those who paid careful attention throughout the semester on how to begin with the formulation of the research question and thesis to the analysis of various kinds of sources to following through with clear analytical prose and formatting.

One student wrote a 33-page social history of the 5th Virginia. This student compiled multiple tables from both the Valley’s dossier listings and the Howard volume on the regiment. Tables focused on pre-war occupations, age of enlistment, and desertion rates. In addition the student actually provided analysis of the tables within the narrative along with a careful consideration of the letters and diaries of the men who served in the regiment–a first-rate job. Another student analyzed the debates in Augusta County, Virginia on secession. This student went through letters, diaries, and newspapers and crafted a very sophisticated interpretation that acknowledged the wide-range of opinion on this paper. In addition, she used articles by William Freehling, Charles Dew, Peter Carmichael, and James McPherson to connect her analysis to the ongoing scholarly debates. This is a paper that with little revision should be submitted to a high school history journal for publication. Another student analyzed the correspondence and family history of Jedediah Hotchkiss. He was particularly interested in how a northerner became a fervent Confederate. Finally, another student wrote a very thorough essay on how the residents of Augusta County and people in general dealt with the death on a large scale. In addition to the primary resources on the database this student read studies on the subject by Drew Faust and a chapter in John R. Neff’s new study of how Americans honored the Civil War dead.

I am still learning how to more fully utilize the internet and other technologies in the classroom. That said, I have to say that my little experiment this semester was successful. Most of my students now have a solid grasp of the research process. I could have taught the standard lecture course, but the research option gives them a skill that they will be able to apply to most of their college courses.


Ron Maxwell to Pay Back Loan

Turns out that director Ron Maxwell took out a loan of $300,000 from Washington County, Maryland to complete the final chapter in the Shaara trilogy. Well, with the failure of the movie Gods and Generals it looks like those plans are in serious jeopardy and now the county wants its money back. I would also like the $8 dollars that I wasted on his film and the five hours of my life that I will never get back. In all seriousness, I do hope that the final installment never sees the silver screen.


Civil War Opera

Philip Glass is planning to compose an opera about the Civil War, specifically about the surrender at Appomattox Court House. One question: Will he base his operatic interpretation on the mythology of the surrender as it relates to reconciliation or will he base it on more recent studies that suggest a lingering bitterness? Obviously, this is not a serious question; regardless of his interpretation much of his music sounds the same to me. Still, I will give it a listen. How about a rock opera composed by Pete Townsend? What would that sound like?


Dimitri’s Popper

Thanks to Dimitri for the Karl Popper reference. Popper is best remembered for his argument that a scientific theory, by definition, must be falsifiable. Someone should remind the Intelligent Design clan of this, but my guess is that they are not really interested in furthering science anyway.

Unfortunately, Dimitri uses his Popper passage to set up another one of his straw-man arguments that pits his centennialists (or as he puts it, “the class of ’65-i.e., Catton and later McPherson) against a growing tide of crusaders set on correcting their mistakes. We are to believe that the field of Civil War history is filled with “cliques” and “pressure groups” that perpetuate certain generalizations and stifle innovative thought. While I do agree that the institutionalization of any discipline has the potential of creating such a scene, it seems to me that Dimitri has taken it too far. As I’ve stated before there have been plenty of important changes on the historiographical landscape that are central to our understanding of the Civil War. One need only look at the history of slavery, the resurgence of political history in recent years(just look at recent studies by William Freehling and Michael Holt) and of course the growing influence of social history. Part of the problem is that we have too narrow a definition of the Civil War. Should we measure the field by simply looking at how historians have interpreted the big shots of the war including McClellan, Lee, Lincoln, Davis, etc. and the popular battles or should we cast our net wider? Take a look through the table of contents of the journal Civil War History over the years and you will see plenty of significant change in the way that historians have understood the war. The publication’s subtitle is a “Journal of the Middle Period” which implies that the years leading up to and through the war are essential to understanding the war itself. From this perspective the changes are even more apparent.


Remembering Garrison Frazier

There is an excellent post over on Hiram Hoover on the 141st anniversary of the meeting between William T. Sherman and a delegation of black religious leaders. The meeting resulted in Special Field Order 15 which issued 40 acres of land to individual slaves along a coastal area stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to north Florida. The post focuses specifically on Reverend Garrison Frazier who led the contingent of religious leaders. Hoover discusses Frazier’s views on emancipation, and the role of land in guaranteeing the economic survival of the newly-freed slaves. His final thoughts on the significance of the steps African Americans themselves took to end slavery and our understanding of Lincoln’s role in this process are quite interesting:

The problem too often with popular discussions of this history is that they focus on a few figures—Lincoln, Johnson, Sherman, etc.—or collapse these complexities into simplistic generalizations—especially about the North vs. the “South.” I say this not out of a sense of professional superiority or jealousy, but because I feel strongly that bad history makes bad politics. And it’s very rare to see discussions of the South in politics today that don’t invoke history to some extent (which you seldom see in discussions of other regions, like the Midwest or Mountain states). When I see discussions in the media or blogosphere about “the South,” I know I’m likely to hear mostly if not entirely about the white South. When I read people repeating the popular line that the “South lost the war but won the peace,” it’s clear to me that they don’t have Garrison Frazier in mind.

I don’t mean to suggest that the only problem here is race (though that’s certainly a large part of it). It’s also that complex events get reduced to questions about the judgment or character of an individual, so that the coming of emancipation, for example, gets debated as a question of what Lincoln thought about slavery and race. This is not, let me emphasize, an argument that the great “dead white men” don’t matter (which strikes me primarily as a caricature anyway). Rather, it’s an argument that they need to be understood as part of an historical process—one that connects Lincoln, for example, not just to other politicians and to the northern public, but also to soldiers and officers in the field, to runaway slaves, and to black leaders like Garrison Frazier. The study of history isn’t a zero-sum game, and recognizing the importance of those other actors isn’t a way to impoverish Lincoln—it’s a way to enrich our understanding of the past.