Teaching Lincoln

With the end of the school year not too far off it’s time to think about electives for next year.  I’ve already decided to offer my Women’s History class next spring; that should give you an idea of just how much I am enjoying this class.  For the fall term I’ve decided to offer a class specifically on Abraham Lincoln.  I have yet to write up a detailed course description and I don’t even know what to call the class.  Perhaps “Lincoln’s America” or Lincoln’s Civil War” will work.  I foresee a fairly straightforward class that explores both Lincoln’s personal life as well as the war years, and if there is time I will introduce the class to issues related to Lincoln and memory.

As far as books are concerned I’ve decided to use the late William Gienapp’s short biography, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America (Oxford University Press, 2002) along with the companion volume of primary sources.  The biography is right around 200 pages which will make it easy to bridge off from to examine other sources and work on various projects.  The companion volume of letter, speeches, etc. is compiled from Roy Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.  I also wanted to order one book of essays on Lincoln, but am having some difficulty narrowing it down.  Right now Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces Of An American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2001) is the front runner.  The essays cover a wide swath.  The essays include Douglas Wilson on Lincoln’s early life, David H. Donald on Lincoln and Davis as commander in chief as well as Allen Guelzo on Lincoln and the Constitution.  Finally, there is a wonderful collection of artistic interpretations of Lincoln by Boritt and Harold Holzer.  Feel free to offer any other suggestions that you think might work well.

I plan to write up something fairly substantial about the course in light of the upcoming Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations.  I am already working on a lesson plan that looks at how the Ken Burns documentary interprets Lincoln’s life.  Who knows, maybe I will take the class on a pilgrimage to Springfield, Illinois.

A Book We All Should Read

My copy of Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (Knopf) arrived today.  I’ve mentioned Manning’s scholarship on a number of occasions.   It was a great pleasure for me to be able to join her for a panel discussion about Civil War soldiers at the most recent AHA meeting.  I’ve read a great deal of her work over the past two years and have used Manning’s North and South Magazine articles in my Civil War class.

This book should receive a great deal of attention as it focuses on an important topic and has been released by a popular publisher.  Manning explores the way soldiers on both sides of the Potomac understood the issues of slavery and race over the course of the Civil War.  This is a touchy issue for many Civil War enthusiasts and for Americans generally.  We’re not very comfortable talking about these issues and tend to steer clear at all costs.  All too often these discussions, including specific questions and answers are framed in ways that reflect more about how we would like to understand Civil War soldiers rather than the soldiers themselves.  For instance, in an attempt to distance slavery/race from the world of the Confederate soldier we mention how few actually owned slaves – as if ownership were somehow a sufficient reason to ignore the ways in which non-slaveholders may have understood and responded to the “peculiar institution.”  On the other hand, we prefer to distance Union soldiers from the same issue by asserting blanket statements about the primacy of preserving the Union over emancipation.  In both cases there is little willingness to explore the complexity of the topic or the ways in which the war transformed the men on both sides in relationship to these issues.  In contrast to this overly simplistic stance on what is perhaps the central issue of the war and American history we have no problem appreciating the voracious appetites of those people who leave no stone unturned in tracing the excruciating minutiae of a Civil War battlefield.

Manning’s book is steeped in archival sources.  There are literally hundreds of individual soldier collections, and Manning kept “data sheets” on 477 Confederate soldiers as well as 657 Union soldiers.  In addition, Manning utilizes for the first time over 100 regimental newspapers.  What Manning has given us is arguably the most complete study of how Confederate and Union soldiers understood slavery/race throughout the war.

If we listen to what soldiers had to say as they fought the Civil War, the men in the ranks do not allow us to duck the uncomfortable issue of human slavery, but rather take us right to the heart of it.  They force us to look at it unflinchingly, and what is more, to see it a as a national, not simply southern, issue that defined a war and shaped a nation. (p. 18)

As you might imagine I will have much more to say as I make my through this book.  In the mean time go out and buy this important book.

Is It a Rising or Setting Sun?

LeeLet’s face it Confederate Heritage Month isn’t what it used to be.  In years past the month was identified with the remembrance of all things Confederate, but this year that acknowledgment is being clouded and even challenged on a number of fronts.  This is of course nothing new for people who have followed the cultural/political trends throughout the South since the 1970s.  The demographic shifts have been quite profound and our state and local political bodies reflect groups whose pasts do not necessarily conform or reduce to a vision that celebrates white Southerners as understood during the four years of the Confederacy. 

These shifts can be seen in the number of legislatures that have issued statements that express apologies or regrets surrounding a state’s involvement in introducing or perpetuating the institution of slavery and its Jim Crow descendant.  Virginia has already done so along with Maryland while North Carolina is currently debating a similar bill.  Over the past few weeks legislatures in Texas, Georgia, and even in the U.S. House of Representatives have either introduced bills or begun the discussion. 

In the case of North Carolina and Georgia the debate over a slavery apology has accompanied one that would involve a formal declaration of April as Confederate Heritage and History Month.  Here we find the clearest indication of the profound changes taking place throughout the South.  Can anyone imagine the possibility of this type of compromise just 20-30 years ago?  For some the situation is even more dire.  Recently the mayor of New Castle, Indiana repealed a proclamation naming April Confederate Heritage Month just three days after authorizing it.

No doubt smaller counties throughout the country will have little difficulty authorizing proclamations, but the days of state proclamations may be drawing to a close.  I’ve said before that there is nothing surprising about these changes.  In fact, the very changes that we are witnessing today stem from the same dynamics that brought about the emphasis on a white Confederate past by the turn of the twentieth century and throughout much of the century to follow.  Our state legislatures now reflect a wider range of their constituencies.

Is it any surprise that a past constructed by white Americans designed to reinforce a racial hierarchy would therefore be challenged and revised? 

Civil War Conference at Kennesaw State University

The Third Annual Interpretations of the American Civil War Symposium will be held on May 4 and 5 at Kennesaw State University.  The title of this conference is "The Struggle Within: The Confederate Home Front."  Speakers include the following:

Professor George Rable (Keynote Address): “Blended History: New Approaches to Studying the Confederate
Home Front”

Professor Victoria Bynum: "Guerrilla Wars: Plain Folk
Resistance to the Confederacy”

Professor Kenneth Noe: "The Origins of Guerrilla War in West
Virginia"

Professor LeeAnn Whites: "’Corresponding to the Enemy:’
The Home Front as a Relational Field of Battle"

All four of the speakers are top-notch scholars.  This promises to be a very exciting and educational conference.  For more information click here.

How Do You Like Your History?

[Hat-Tip to David Woodbury]

I like my history dry, informed by a wide spectrum of primary sources, and void of as much presentism as possible.  The recent AEC Conference on Southern Literature included popular speakers such as Jon Meacham and Wendell Berry.  Meacham "emphasize[d] how the study of history casts light on the political and religious dilemmas facing the country today" while Wendell Berry’s talk titled "American Imagination and the Civil War" explored how literature informs and shapes our memories of the war.  Unfortunately, my comments re: Berry must be based on Kevin Trumpeters summation of his talk in The Pulse.  Here is an excerpt:

Wendell Berry’s keynote address on Friday evening, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” also considered historical issues that have a particular resonance with today’s political concerns. As you’d expect from a reputed iconoclast, the poet-farmer’s take on the War Between the States would be classified as “revisionist.” Berry acceded that slavery was certainly one of the important aspects of the conflict, but pointed out a cause that frequently gets overlooked by the textbooks—“People generally don’t like to get invaded.”

Like a latter-day Faulkner, he lamented the lingering “curse” of the Civil War that continues to afflict Southern society and called the supposedly self-evident benefits of the Union victory into question. He referred to the emancipation effort as “botched,” noting that our society still has yet to come to terms with the “money power of the North that replaced the slave power of the South” and that Americans still rely on an subservient group of people (he cited Latino immigrants as the latter-day “Stepin Fetchits” of our society) to perform the menial labor which upper-and middle-class Americans are “too good, too well-educated, and too ignorant to do ourselves.” He suggested that the Northern victory not only imposed the vagaries of industrialization on the bucolic agrarian culture of the antebellum South, it also set the tone of overconfidence and privilege that is the hallmark of a contemporary American attitude that “conflates the American way of life with the will of God.”

Woodbury suggests that perhaps these talks would have been better suited to a history conference.  From the few passages that are included in this report I have to respectfully disagree.  I have no doubt that Berry is well read in history, but a few of his ideas betray a traditional – Lost Cause view of the antebellum South and the war.  Now one could say that I am being overly critical and impatient; after all, not everyone spends most of their waking moments reading analytical histories of nineteenth-century America.  We can say this, however, only if we ignore the connections that Berry draws between these specific points about the history of the South and his broader points, which include the idea that Southern society is "afflicted"  as well as his ideas of "overconfidence" and "privilege."  Are Berry’s conclusions supported in any way by his claims about the past?  Do we have a responsibility to ask? 

As many of you can surmise I agree wholeheartedly with Berry in his assertion that our society has still not come to terms with the emancipationist legacy of the war.  On the other hand his references to a moneyed North as opposed to the "slave power" suggests an outdated interpretation of antebellum America.  The biggest problem, however, is Berry’s overly simplistic distinction between the overly industrial North with a "bucolic agrarian culture."  Anyone who has read recent studies by William Freehling, Peter Carmichael, and William Link understands that these distinctions are fictional.  I should say that I am not familiar with Berry’s work.  Here is how Woodbury describes it:

His relentlessly green approach to living, his devotion to conservation and sustainable farming, his eloquent disdain for consumerism – all of this appeals to the part of me that wants to live a rural or remote existence.

Is it an accident that Berry would make the above-mentioned distinctions surrounding the "Old South"?

I can’t help but have the warning lights go off when history is used as a way to comment on the present.  It’s even more disturbing when the history that is sketched out has little to do with what it purports to reflect.