Civil War As Entertainment

Few things bother me more than watching people get their kicks off of some aspect of the Civil War. It is difficult to define my frustration, so let me share a few anecdotes. I’ve seen it at Civil War Roundtables whose audiences hope for nothing more than the same tired stories about the same short list of characters. It’s that little chuckle in the audience after the presenter strikes some sentimental chord that irks me. I see it in casual discussions when the person finds out I teach a class on the Civil War and says: “Let me share a story your students will love.” And yes you can see it in the coffee mugs, t-shirts, towels, and bumper stickers. What bothers me is the casualness of it all. There is a lack of seriousness that functions to keep the individual from truly grasping the tragedy and horror of the event. I blame in part the Lost Cause interpretation for creating this child-like mentality. Lost Cause advocates, in reinterpreting the end of the war from one of defeat to a valiant stand in the face of overwhelming numbers and an industrial North, turned the war into a fictional story with a sharp dichotomy between heroes and villians. We could also throw in the general drive towards reunion during the postwar years, which had the effect of distancing Americans from any chance of dealing with the difficulties of race. So, by 1900 we have Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and a sanitized image of the common soldier. Throw in a little Gone With the Wind and you’ve got yourself a real tear jerker. One sometimes gets the impression that people are happy there was a war so we could have this story to embrace.

The long-term consequences are the movies Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Of all the possible moral lessons that a Civil War movie could address, the best Gettysburg could do is place James Longstreet on the moral high ground owing to his firm conviction that the July 3 charge was doomed from the beginning. Their relative positive reception in Civil War circles reflects a continued love affair with entertainment at the expense of more serious reflection. Both movies were more an exercise in cliches than any attempt to tackle history. I sometimes show pieces of Gods and Generals to my Civil War class and it never fails to garner a great deal of laughter. I have actually had students ask if this is a comedy.

In an essay which analyzed the primacy of political factors in understanding the cause of the war, the late historian William Gienapp had this to say: “However much social and economic developments fueled the sectional conflict, the coming of the Civil War must be explained ultimately in political terms, for the outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such, the Civil War constituted the greatest single failure of American democracy.” The operative word in this passage is “failure.” The Civil War was an absolute failure of our democracy. I sometimes wish more people would approach the study of the war from this perspective. When it comes to the Civil War there is very little to celebrate or feel good about.

In the Introduction to his book Apostles of Disunion Charles Dew describes on the one hand the feeling of growing up in the South with a casual though profound respect for “Lee’s valiant men, who fought so hard and so long before finally yielding to overwhelming numbers.” As a serious scholar of the 19th century South Dew confronts his boyhood by noting how disappointed he was to discover the role that slavery and race played in his study of the secessionist commissioners. From the introduction:

“All this is a roundabout introduction to a point I wish to make at the outset: despite my scholarly training and years spent trying to practice the historian’s craft, I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write. Even though I am far removed–both in time and attitude–from my boyhood dreaming about Confederate glory, I am still hit with a profound sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based.”

I think Dew is on to something quite interesting. For many casual Civil War enthusiasts the study of the Civil War is simply a fascination with “boyhood dreams.” Perhaps Faulkner was right on target when he argued that for every young southern boy every day is July 3. I am suggesting that this is a dangerous stance to take in regard to the Civil War. To the extent that we remain satisfied with attractive stories that simply color the past is the extent to which we fail to acknowledge the deep problems that the Civil War uncovered and in certain respects left unresolved.

Why High School History?

Not too long ago I ran into one of my student’s parents in a local bookstore. It was a casual discussion that eventually turned to my interests in the Civil War. He asked about my ongoing projects and whether I might be speaking in the area in the near future. He eventually asked me if I had any plans to pursue a PhD in history or if I had any interest teaching on the college level. At this point I am not sure what was said in response, but I have to admit to feeling a bit uncomfortable with the question. Sometimes the question seems to be asked from a vantage point that implies a negative judgment on high school teaching. Others no doubt find it difficult to acknowledge that one can work at becoming a serious scholar within the confines of a high school setting. Here are some thoughts as to why I am not teaching in a college or university.

The quick answer to the question is that I do not have a PhD in history. I did apply into a well- respected program in Southern History and the Civil War but was turned down. Needless to say I was a bit surprised given that I had a few minor publications and an M.A in philosophy. Of course I got over it. Once over the rejection I realized that what I wanted more than anything else was to get back into the classroom and study the history of the South. I applied into the graduate program in history at the University of Richmond and was accepted. The department is small which guaranteed close contact with the professors. Best of all I was able to go part time and my school agreed to pay the tuition. I was lucky enough to meet Professor Robert Kenzer early on. His area of specialization bridged both the South and the Civil War, which meant that I would get a broader view of 19th Century America. He is the author of an excellent postwar study of black entrepreneurs in North Carolina titled, Enterprising Entrepreneurs: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915. Kenzer was an ideal mentor in so many ways. He encouraged me to submit essays to journals and to present my work at academic conferences. I was given a great deal of freedom to work on independent studies which gave me plenty of opportunity to develop my own ideas and balance school with teaching. My work was carefully critiqued, which ultimately led to a pretty good M.A. thesis on the Battle of the Crater and Civil War memory. An M.A in history has put me in an ideal position. Civil War history is one of the few areas where non-academics can make their mark. Given the ongoing debate over the relative isolation of most history professors from popular audiences I believe this is worth mentioning. It is common to attend conferences with non-professionals on panels and there is nothing strange about picking up a university press book by a park service employee or museum curator, etc. A few non-academics stand out: Stephen Sears, William Marvel, Eric Wittenberg, Gordon Rhea, Alan Nolan, and Bob Krick. I am not trying to place myself in the same category as those just mentioned. It is simply to say that just about everything I could do with a PhD I can do now.

That said the main reason why I am still teaching high school history is that I love my students. My job brings me face-to-face on a daily basis with young adults who have a great deal of energy and curiosity. When done right, teaching is one of the most rewarding experiences and the relationship between teacher and student one of the most honest. I am continually impressed by how much I have learned from them over the years. As much as I teach them, my students have taught me much more. There is the continual challenge of finding new ways to convey difficult information or to impress upon them the importance of the past. I try as best I can to introduce them to the world of ideas, that each of them can partake in the ongoing debate surrounding the big questions, and that they can and should think seriously about their own identity. Best of all, my students keep me young. Right now in the car stereo is a “burned” CD titled, “Mr. Levin’s Rap Mix.” In short, there is a sense of excitement that is difficult to imagine in any other job.

Student Research Wrap-Up

My Civil War students are now in the final stages of their research projects based on the Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia. As discussed in a previous post, this course is structured around the idea of a college research seminar. Students are introduced to the research process from learning how to develop a thesis statements to analyzing various kinds of historical sources. On occassion, students are asked to share their work with the entire class and provide feedback for their peers. What I like about this type of history course is that it places the student in the position of authority. Given the amount of source material contained on the database, students cannot look to me as an authority. They must learn how to interpret and make those judgments. This is a wonderful academic lesson for students about to begin college. In addition to the research process I was able to introduce the class to articles that reflect ongoing debates. The class read articles by James McPherson, Charles Dew, Reid Mitchell, Mark Grimsley, Gary Gallagher, and Peter Carmichael. Students were required to assess each argument (often in comparison with previous articles) by writing a 2-page thesis summary. In the end I hope they have a more mature understanding of how the historical process works. More importantly, I hope they can acknowledge the complexity of past events that lie just underneath the surface.

Overview of Crater Manuscript

I am at the beginning stages of the final chapter of my book manuscript on postwar commemorations and memory of the Battle of the Crater. The final chapter will bring the analysis of memory up to the present day– specifically to the release of the movie Cold Mountain. Here is a brief overview of the project:

Chapter 1: Analysis of the battle with an emphasis on wartime sources. I am interested primarily in how Confederates evaluated the battle during the immediate aftermath. A decisive Confederate victory on July 30 reinforced their faith in Robert E. Lee and the belief in final victory. It is important not to look back on the past from a vantage point that assumes defeat. These men kept track of news throughout the summer and paid particular attention to Jubal Early’s raid into Maryland, W.T. Sherman’s march towards Atlanta and the presidential election set for November. There was much to be optimistic about at the beginning of August 1864. Their letters and diaries reveal a great deal about how these men reacted to the use of black soldiers in the Federal attack. The presence of black soldiers served to reinforce their belief that defeat meant an overturning of their antebellum world. I am struck by the emotion in their words; for many it clarified the meaning of the war.

Chapter 2: Confederate veterans engaged in a heated debate with one another over who could claim rightful ownership of Confederate victory at the Crater. Veterans who fought in the battle from outside the Old Dominion cried foul as they watched Virginians claim the victory as their own. Of course, Virginians had the advantage of location and many of the units involved were raised in the Petersburg-Richmond-Norfolk area. The debate raged into the 20th century, but was ultimately won by Virginians.

Chapter 3: William Mahone is the central figure in this story and during the postwar period he used his popularity from the Crater to market himself as a railroad entrepreneur. He commissioned paintings of the Crater, took part in reunions of his old Virginia brigade on the battlefield, and approved biographies of his military exploits. At least one authorized biography by J. Watts DePeyster brought about a nasty exchange with Jubal Early. Mahone’s role at the Crater was seriously challenged as a result of his leadership of the Readjuster Party. The political movement fractured Mahone’s old command owing to the legislative agenda of the Readjusters which brought about increased political involvement by black Virginians. David Weisiger who actually commanded the Virginia brigade on July 30 and a vocal critic of Mahone during the Readjuster years, was referred to as the “Hero of the Crater” in his obituary which was reprinted in Confederate Veteran.

Chapter 4: By the beginning of the 20th century black soldiers were rendered invisible in both published recollections and public commemorations. I’ve discussed this in previous posts. Virginians failed to give full voice to their own initial reactions in large part because to do so would have challenged their own preferred view of antebellum race relations. By 1900 Virginia was well on its way to revising its state constitution and moving down the road of Jim Crow. Again, remembering the actions of black Americans at the Crater simply did not conform to this racial outlook.

Chapter 5: The success of the 1903 Crater reenactment began a drive to establish the Petersburg National Military Park. This chapter looks at the role of national reunion and reconciliation (much of which centered on the Crater) as an crucial factor in this process. The land comprising the Crater field was in private hands up to 1918 and turned into an 18-hole golf course by the Crater Battlefield Association until it was finally handed over to the National Park Service in 1936. The change of ownership was marked by a second reenactment in 1937.

The final chapter will examine the consequences of the disappearance of African Americans from the Crater landscape. The NPS inherited an interpretation that was widely accepted by 1936 and continued to promote a narrative that gave short thrift to black soldiers. Not until the 1960’s was their a concerted effort to correct this oversight. Of course, these correctives are highly controversial as they ask us to step back and reevaluate some of our basic assumptions of the overall meaning of the war.

Civil War at the American Historical Association

Some of you may be interested in attending one of the Civil War sessions at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Historical Association which will take place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 5-8. Sessions are scheduled for the Marriott and Loews Hotels in downtown Philly. Click here for the full program.

15. Old Unreconstructeds: Southern Memory and the Civil War
Loews, Congress Room A (Friday, Jan. 6: 9:30-11:30 a.m. sessions)

Chair: Gregory Urwin, Temple University

Papers: “A Manifest Aversion to the Union Cause: The Lost Cause and the Civil Memory in Kentucky” — Anne Elizabeth Marshall, Franklin College of Indiana

“Landscapes and the Lost Cause: An Analysis of the 1903 and 1937 Crater Reenactments”– Kevin M. Levin, St. Anne’s — Belfield School, Charlottesville, Virginia

“‘Oh, I’m A Good Rebel”: Civil War Reenactment and the Lost Cause”– Christopher Bates, University of California at Los Angeles

Comment: Gregory Urwin

41. Transnational Histories of the American Civil War
Loews, Congress Room B, (Friday, Jan. 6: 9:30-11:30 a.m. sessions)

Chair: Sven Beckert, Harvard University

Papers: “Repealing Unions: American Abolitionists, Irish Nationalists, and the Coming of the Civil War”–W. Caleb McDaniel, Johns Hopkins University

“Distant Shores: America in the Scottish Imagination, 1861-1917”–Susan-Mary Grant, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

“International Reactions to Grant’s World Tour, 1877-79”–David Quigley, Boston College

Comment: Martha Rhodes, New York University

45. Writing and Teaching about Women in the United States Civil War–Roundtable
Marriott, Grand Ballroom, Salon L

Chair: Nancy Bercaw, University of Mississippi

Topics: “Crossing Borders with Rural Women”–Judith Giesberg, Villanova University
“Workplace Turf Wars in the Postwar Midwest”–Wendy H. Venet, Georgia State University
“Bridging Generational Borders”–Matt Gallman, University of Florida
“Exploring the Gendered Borders of Race and Nation”–Alic Fahs, University of California at Irvine
“The Borders of Women’s Reform”–Jean Baker, Goucher College
“Women at the Border”–Elizabeth Varon, Temple University


Why the National Park Service Is Right

In 2000 the NPS began the process of reevaluating the interpretation of its Civil War battlefields. NPS officials judged that it had fallen short in its coverage of the role of slavery as a crucial factor in the cause of the war and its role in the evolution of the conflict. Southern Heritage groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans were quick to respond. The following appeared in the SCV’s official organ, the Southern Messenger: The present politically correct conventional wisdom is that the War Between the States was fought over slavery, period; that therefore all things Confederate are tainted by a tacit endorsement of slavery or its latter-day counterpart, “racism,” and therefore those who venerate them are racists.” Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, retired Chief Historian of the NPS asserted, “We’re not being responsible public servants if we don’t explain the history that underpins these battles.” This ongoing debate highlights the wide gap between heritage and history or academic and amateur historians.

The NPS utilized the talents of some of the nation’s leading academic historians. Their recommendations reflect widely-held assumption going back to the 1950’s that slavery played a vital role in the events that led to secession and war. Many outside academic circles continue to maintain that either slavery was irrelevant to understanding secession and the war or that there were so many issues involved that it is historically inaccurate to highlight the “peculiar institution” specifically. Needless to say that I am not going to get into this debate as I believe it has been played out. There are more interesting questions to ask. The NPS is absolutely on track in the reevaluation of their interpretation. One of the common arguments made is that these battlefields ought to commemorate the men who fought and therefore should not mix other issues. Officials should concentrate on the movement of troops and other tactical issues. My problem with this is that it reduces these men to chess pieces and ignores the fact that they were concerned about political issues such as slavery and emancipation. Anyone who has ever read the letters of these men can attest to this; they closely followed issues related to slavery in newspapers and commented extensively on its relevance one way or another. The other problem with this argument is that it turns the battlefield into a vacuum. Focusing solely on battlefield issues ignores the fundamental question as to why these men were fighting. One is left with the impression of men simply falling out of the sky to kill one another without any reasoning. It would be similar to explaining the events of 9-11 without any reference to Islamic extremism. Imagine being given a tour of “Ground Zero” and the tour guide provides a detailed account of the events of that day without any background information. It’s like: “Well, one day a couple of guys from Saudi Arabia decided to fly a couple planes into the World Trade Center.”

Move away for a moment and consider the more local question of the role of slavery and emancipation in reference to specific battles. In the case of the battle of the Crater it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for the discussion of these issues. On the one hand it is impossible to understand the recruitment of close to 200,000 black soldiers without some understanding of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation and also difficult to appreciate the responses and behavior of Confederate soldiers after realizing these men had been included in the Federal attack. I see this landscape as an ideal place to discuss questions of black freedom and related issues. In short, it is as much a part of the history of that battle as the movements of troops and in my mind more important. In the end this debate underscores the success of reunion and the ascendancy of an interpretation that concentrates on the shared values of the men in the ranks. This can be seen today in the continuing fascination and popularity of Civil War reenacting. Many seem to be driven by a desire to achieve an authenticity in outward appearance—failure to do so may result in being labeled a “farb.” However, in doing so one runs the risk of engaging in farb-like behavior of the mind. People travel to Civil War battlefields for all kinds of reasons. I have no problem if someone wishes to concentrate solely on the military side of a battlefield; however, it is the responsibility of the NPS to provide first-time visitors and others with a mature account that reflects both the horrors of battle and relevant background.

Thank You John Hope Franklin

The most recent issue of The Journal of Southern History (November 2005) contains the presentations from a roundtable discussion that took place at last year’s Southern Historical Association (SHA) convention in Memphis, Tennessee. Duke University Emeritus Professor John Hope Franklin was one of the participants. The panel discussion commemorated the 50th anniversary of the association’s meeting in that same city and a panel that focused on the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. Franklin, who worked on the historical background of the Brown case was asked to take part. Although he served on the SHA’s planning committee for that year, Franklin refused to take part as the Peabody Hotel would not allow black historians to book reservations. In a letter written shortly before the meeting was set to take place, Franklin explained: “There are times when one gets weary of inconveniences and risks of humiliation; and in order to retain one’s sanity and self-respect he must have periods of time in which he unrealistically insulates himself from such experiences.” Beyond problems related to travel arrangements, Franklin was also weary of the negative reception that he was bound to receive by many fellow academics.

Here is a bit more from Franklin’s 2004 speech, which provides insight into his decision not to attend the meeting in Memphis.

“There were two anticipated experiences, however, that greatly influenced my state of mind, even as I discharged my duties as a member of the program committee of the Southern Historical Association, which, by that time, some African American historians were calling the Confederate Historical Association. In the summer of 1955, I was invited to spend a portion of that summer at a conference in Braunschweig, Germany, to offer assistance in the rewriting of the textbooks that had been used in the German schools to make certain now that there was no longer a taint of Nazism in anything the young poeople would be studying. As I went through that exercise I could not help wondering: if young southerners had earlier been exposed to books that emphasized the common humanity of all people of the South, perhaps the problems that we confronted in 1955 would not exist.

The other experience was also a European experience. I had been invited to read a paper before the International Congress of Historical Sciences meeting in Rome in September 1955. The Americans I met there were not concerned with such trivia as where I would stand when I read that paper and whether I would eat at a sidewalk restaurant or have my meals in my hotel room. Instead, some of the historians were more interested in my joining their department as their chairman than how I would act when we had our audience with the Pope. It gave me the perspective that I needed to remain firm in my resolve not to go to Memphis, although, at that time, I was drooling to see and hear William Faulkner.”

You can read much more about Franklin’s life and distinguished academic career in his new autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

Let’s Hear It for the Girls

Anyone following trends in Civil War publishing has probably noticed the increase in gender studies. The 1996 publication of Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew G. Faust underscored the connection between southern slaveholding women and Confederate defeat. Though the book received a great deal of attention in academic crowds it made little impact in more popular circles. That is unfortunate as the book is well argued (though I take issue with certain conclusions) and fairly easy to follow. Most importantly, Faust emphasizes the close connection between the battlefield and the home front. I hate to water her argument down, but in essence Faust argues that slaveholding women were unable or refused to maintain support for the Confederate military effort by the middle of the war, and as a result pressed the men in their lives to return home.

As in other categories of Civil War studies books on women – depending on the authors – tend to fall into one or two camps: analytical or popular. Let me mention two such books that I recently reviewed for Civil War Book Review. The first is Elizabeth Varon’s, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew. The second is the more recently released, Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy by Ann Blackman. Check out my reviews for a detailed analysis. The former book is a bit more analytical. Varon analyzes Van Lew’s success as a Union spy in terms of her ability to manipulate the gender assumptions of the time. Blackman’s book is much more narrative driven. Some readers (including this one) will no doubt take issue with certain conclusions re: her importance to the Confederacy; still, the book remains an entertaining read.

I am thinking about offering an elective next year on women and the Civil War. My Advanced Placement classes in American history are dominated by female students. However, many of them steer clear of history electives their senior year. Perhaps this will keep a few more in the fold.