Would Robert E. Lee Welcome YOU To His Dinner Table?

I am currently reading and enjoying Susan Dunn’s Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia (Basic Books, 2007), which explores the period between the 1820s and the Civil War.  Dunn writes well, but most importantly the book is filling in a significant gap in my understanding of the state’s history.  According to Dunn, Virginia went from a national leader during the Early Republic to a declining economy whose leaders held tightly to a provincial view which provided little opportunity for a large portion of its white population.  Planters defaulted on their loans and gradually became more defensive about their northern neighbors and foreign observers who visited the region and were shocked to discover the lack of productivity on Virginia’s farms and the pervasiveness of poverty.  Dunn attributes Virginia’s downfall to a combination of its ruling
elite adhering to a “gentlemanly” way of life, its obsession with
states’ rights and the retention of slavery.

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Peer Review or An Exercise in Humility

This post originally appeared in December 2005, just one month into my blogging experiment.  I’ve enjoyed Eric Wittenberg’s excellent series of posts on his experience researching and publishing Civil War history so I thought it might be helpful to re-post my own experience with peer review for those interested. I should add that since this post I’ve done quite a bit of peer review for a few journals and am currently serving on the editorial advisory board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.  Perhaps I will have time at some point to discuss my experience on the other side.

It’s been an interesting few months putting the finishing touch on two essay slated for publication in the near future. The first is a piece on William Mahone’s postwar political career and its connection to his legacy as a Confederate general and will appear in a few weeks in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. The second is an article on postwar debates between Virginians, North Carolinians, Alabamians, and South Carolinians over the Crater. This is
set to appear in an edited volume that will be published next fall by the University of Kentucky Press.

Both articles have gone through a very rigorous peer review process and since it is my first experience I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on it. The Mahone article has gone through a very stringent set of controls. Once submitted the article was read by the two editors of the journal. I was notified after a few months that the article had been read by the editor and was deemed worthy of being sent out for anonymous peer review. The essay was sent to four readers and within a few months I had their response: “REJECTION.” The paper was rejected for immediate publication; however, I was given the opportunity and encouraged to respond to the reviewers’ comments and resubmit. I have to admit that it took me about a week to drag my ego out of the mud. To make a long story short, the reviewers tore my essay apart. They all agreed that it had redeeming qualities, but it needed serious revision. With a renewed commitment I set out to respond to the critiques. I took a 4-day trip down to Special Collections at Duke to work with the Mahone collection and began rewriting. After about 5 months I had a revised draft ready to send back to the journal with no guarantee that it would be accepted. The essay was drastically revised both in terms of content and thesis. I was pleasantly surprised to learn a few weeks later that the article had been accepted for publication. Thinking that the brunt of the work had been completed I focused on other projects. It was not to be: A few weeks later I received my first email in reference to polishing the prose and clarifying specific analytical points. Arguments that I believed were rock solid were referenced for clarification. A few weeks later another email arrived that focused specifically on the endnotes. Every reference (apart from archival material) had been double-checked to ensure that information was properly accounted for. A number of footnotes had to be confirmed. Additional emails continued to arrive regarding a wide range of questions. I have to admit to being a bit paranoid throughout this process. It seemed reasonable at any moment to expect a phone call or email with the
following: “Mr. Levin. . . .we have decided that following through with the publication of your essay is costing us valuable time and mental distress.” Of course I am exaggerating, but this can make you a little nutty first time around.

With the article now close to publication and the other essay close to final revision I have a much clearer appreciation as to why this process is so important to serious historical study. For one, the amount of time spent doing serious research on a topic has the potential for creating a very tight psychological hold between author and product. In short, the more time spent, the more difficult it is to maintain an objective or critical perspective on the interpretation. The anonymous reviews really drove home the importance of independent analysis. On one level it is a humbling experience to be reminded of your own analytical limitations. At the same time it became obvious to me that regardless of how much time you spend reading secondary sources and delving through archival material others still somehow know a hell of a lot more and are more creative thinkers. The trick is to see the editorial/peer review process as an integral step in the overall improvement of the interpretation.

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Sons of Confederate Veterans Hope to Purchase Mahone’s Tavern

The members of the Urquhart-Gillette Camp No. 1471, Sons of Confederate Veterans in Southampton County, Virginia hope to raise enough money to purchase the boyhood home of William Mahone, which is currently on the market.  Mahone’s family moved into the home following “Turner’s Rebellion” in 1831 and established a tavern a fairly successful tavern.  While I applaud the SCV for taking on this cause there is something just slightly humorous about their decision to utilize Mahone’s home for your standard SCV/UDC events:

The group holds monthly meetings in a private restaurant room in Franklin, and [Tommy] Simmons said Mahone’s Tavern would provide a meeting place and activity center for the local SCV camp, as well as for the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other
community historic and civic groups.

As many of you know I’ve spent considerable time reading and writing about William Mahone’s postwar career, and while he was involved in various kinds of commemorative events his goal was almost always to further his business and political interests.  Mahone led a veterans organization made up of men from his Virginia brigade and he authorized biographies as a means to attract interest in his plan for railroad consolidation.  His forays into the past usually resulted in controversy owing to his abrasive personality and political convictions.  The point is that Mahone did not languish in the Lost Cause or weep over the death of the Confederacy; rather, he was optimistic about the future and confident that he could bring Virginia into the modern age.  Such a goal stands in sharp contrast to our memory of white Southerners in the postwar period who stood up defiantly against the modernizing tendencies that they so valiantly fought against for four years.

Most interesting, of course, is Mahone’s politics and position on issues of race.  One has to wonder what Mr. Simmons has envisioned when he references using the home as a “meeting place and activity center.”  How many members of this particular chapter of the SCV are aware of Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party from 1879 to 1883 which was the most successful bi-racial third party in the postwar South?  Do they know that Mahone was considered to be a “Judas” by much of the state and even the men he led into battle for bringing about a political coalition with black Virginians that led to important advances within the public sphere?  Black Virginians attended public schools in the largest numbers and served in local governments around the state, while Mahone served as senator in Washington and voted with the Republican Party:

In 1858 occurred the raid of John Brown and the raid of Mahone and the Readjusters in 1879, though less bloody was more dangerous than that of John Brown.  Both raids occurred in Va, and the negro was in both cases the instrument relied on to destroy the old order of things. [George Bagby’s pamphlet, John Brown and William Mahone: An Historical Parallel, Foreshadowing Civil Trouble]

The Revolution gave us but one Arnold, during the whole seven years of its course, while the Confederate war failed to yield a single one on either side until after it had been fought out.”  Though many of Virginia’s native sons “held out long and well. . . at last some of them succumbed, and are now found, Arnold-like, leading their old enemy against their old friends and associates. [The Richmond State, 1881]

Reconstruction came late to Virginia and it came not at the hands of so-called “Carpetbaggers” but at the hands of one of the most successful Confederate generals.  As a result, white Virginians consciously erased Mahone and the Readjusters from their public memory well into the twentieth century.

Again, I wish the SCV all the best in raising the necessary funds to purchase the property, but I am not at all confident that Mahone would want them in his home.

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Did Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Subscribe to the Theory of Evolution?

My guess is that the good people at Exploration Films Television probably don’t think so.  They make films and documentaries for a Christian audience:

EFT believes that life is a wonderful discovery and they serve those
who are willing to embrace life to the fullest… those who are
curious, risky and insightful… people who love truth: true thinking,
true ideas and true facts. EFT’s powerful, high-quality stories are
some of the most unique around. Some of its titles include Incredible
Creatures That Defy Evolution, a three-volume series that exposes the
lies and assumptions of evolutionary theory; Warriors of Honor, a look
at the life and faith of two of America’s legendary generals Robert E
Lee and Stonewall Jackson; First Love, an historic reunion of
Jesus-Music pioneers; and Rebellion of Thought, a chronicle of two
brothers and their heart-rending struggle for authentic faith in a
post-modern culture.

I assume that Lee and Jackson are two of the "Incredible Creatures" that we can watch in the documentary challenging the theory of evolution.  After all, Lee and Jackson are the paradigm examples in favor of Intelligent Design since it is impossible to imagine that they were both simply the result of some kind of accident within the primordial soup.  More telling, however, is the listing of the Lee and Jackson film smack in the middle of two films that point to the dangers of a secular world. It gets us right back to my previous post which pointed out that we are wedded to an image of the Confederacy as defying the modern tendencies of the North during the war.  It’s the standard ahistorical distinction that we’ve grown accustomed to and which provides the moral framework for understanding the war that a large number of people continue to utilize.  This is a wonderful example of the ways in which history can get sucked into the culture wars: on the one side we have Lee, Jackson, God, and morality and on the other we find Grant, Sherman, atheism, and pragmatism.  For a sense of just how pervasive these assumptions surrounding Lee and Jackson are, keep in mind that EFT is based in Colorado and not in the South. 

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Demobilization, Reconciliation, and Johnny Yuma

About two weeks ago I shared my very rough introduction of my essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia. I took on this project with few prior assumptions about what I would find. Problems abound in trying to track down sources from the period immediately following Appomattox. Few soldiers had the time or the interest in cataloging their journeys home. Most surprising of all was the level of violence that pervaded sections of Virginia, specifically along the Blue Ridge Mountains where those Confederates who deserted during the war continued to hide. Others headed for the hills in hopes that elements of the ANV would regroup and continue the struggle. The sudden surrender and dispersment of the ANV taxed an already depleted landscape and placed those civilians living in close proximity to roads in a precarious situation. Competition for limited resources inevitably led to clashes between soldiers, civilians, and the newly-freed slaves. Couple that with the humiliation of defeat and a sense of uncertainty regarding the future and you’ve got yourself a potentially explosive situation. Many of the soldiers learned of Lincoln’s assassination during their travels and this only added to that uncertainty. I was surprised by how many Confederates viewed the president’s death as a loss for the South. A farmer in Nelson County anticipated much harsher punishment for former Confederates under the new president, Andrew Johnson, while others could only speculate as to how they would be treated.

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