Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.


Update on Crater Manuscript

Crater I recently received the reviews of my manuscript from the publisher and there is both good and not-so-good news.  As for the latter I still need to make some changes to the manuscript before I am given a contract.  The good news is that both reviewers offered first-rate comments and criticisms that will no doubt improve the overall quality of the manuscript.  I am no stranger to the peer review process; the care that academic presses take in ensuring that their publications are solid is the main reason I went this route.  So, over the summer I will address the comments of the reviewers and put everything else on hold that I am currently working on.  This was the first time that the entire manuscript had been reviewed since I submitted an earlier version for the M.A. in history at the University of Richmond back in 2005.  All in all my prospects look good.

One thing that I need to do is distance my study a bit more from the work of David Blight who stresses the extent of consensus achieved nationally and among white Southerners regarding memory of the war.  My work suggests that this is anything but the case as both ex-Confederates debated over who could claim credit for success and the Crater and during the Readjuster years which witnessed bitter debates among veterans of Mahone’s brigade surrounding their commanders foray into politics.  The chapter on the creation of the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936 also needs to be refined in a way which reflects local economic concerns rather than the broad theme of national reconciliation.  I tend to agree with one of the reviewers who suggested that while the first five battlefield parks created at the turn of the twentieth century may have been the result of reconciliation the Crater came much too late.  Northerners may have been involved, but were probably not the prime movers. 

The most interesting suggestion and one which will involve a substantial amount of work involves writing a brand new chapter on the post Rally the High Ground/NPS changes in battlefield interpretation.  The goal of the chapter would be to explore the relationship between the city of Petersburg and its large black population and the NPS.  At one point in the manuscript I speculate as to why black Americans have not taken more of an interest in the Civil War.  From the manuscript review:

While I agree that there has been and continues to be resistance to including the black story in Civil War history, the fact remains that academics and the National Park Service have reached out to all people in attempt to tell a more complicated and inclusive story.  NPS frontline people that I have spoken to are bewildered and confused by the lack of black reaction to this interpretive shift.  It is controversial to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.

Since most people interested in such issues fall back on educated guesses (as I did) the plan is to conduct extensive interviews with former and current NPS staff as well as members of the local community.  This would be the first time that anyone has taken such an approach and it has the potential to steer dialog in a more promising direction.  I’ve already contacted a few NPS personnel and the archivist at Virginia State University and all are willing to help.  If Park Service personnel are indeed confused by the lack of response from the black community six years after the Rally Initiative than it would be important to know why. 

On the one hand it would have been nice to get a contract, but given the time that went into the reading of the manuscript and the constructive criticism that resulted it is difficult not to feel positive about the final product. 

Now I need to look into a decent digital recorder.  Any suggestions?


A Few Additional Thoughts About Robert Krick, Lee, and Historians

Last night I caught Bob Krick’s SCV talk "Lee and Historians in the Age of the Anti-Hero" on CSPAN.  I blogged about this talk a few weeks back, but only had a newspaper article to work with.  Viewing the talk in its entirety, however, did not add much to my previous observations. 

I actually enjoyed listening to Krick.  He’s got a great sense of humor and is clearly a well-read individual beyond the confines of Civil War history.  He started off on just the right note, by commenting on the ways in which memory often comes to distort the past.  In the context of memory of the Civil War Krick outlined the general view made popular by David Blight and others, which highlights the impact that reconciliation and reunion had on popular perceptions of the war.  He referenced this view as a point of departure in noting that not all postwar observations were distortions or exaggerations. 

Krick’s central observation is that historian’s claims that Lee’s reputation was constructed during the postwar era are reflective of a general trend of conspiracy theories and "anti-Confederate" writings.  Now if there ever was a strawman argument this is it.  Before proceeding I should note that Krick frames the issue correctly: the question is not whether one ought to view Lee as an icon, but whether people at the time did.  Krick quotes from three texts to make this point, including Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan, and Michael Fellman.  Only three historians are referenced in the entire talk, which doesn’t make for much of a historiographical analysis.  At one point he suggests that these writers are mainly academics, but of course, Nolan is an attorney.  Later in the talk he quotes approvingly from Charles Roland’s short text on Lee and he is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Kentucky so clearly not all academics are problematic on his view.  On the other hand, Krick’s criticisms of Fellman’s study of Lee focus not on his central question but on the author’s use of psychological categories such as "manic depression."  While I agree that psycho-history can be misused it is not clear to me that Fellman is anti-Lee or anti-anything.  He may be wrong about his claims, but Krick has little interest in critiquing those claims.  Vague generalizations and mischievous minds seem to be the order of the day.

The problem as I see it for Krick is that while his conspiratorial claims about recent Lee literature barely include anything constructive his preferred approach to history is one that many historians have come to appreciate.  Krick believes that the way to approach Lee is by looking at the way he was perceived at the time and not after the war.  He quotes from E. Porter Alexander and a civilian who I am believe is Catherine Edmundson.   Here Krick is on solid ground and on target as an implicit response to Nolan and Connelly.  The problem here is that Krick doesn’t cite one historian writing today who has adopted such an approach and there are many.  He presents himself as a lone cavalier out to save the reputations of the great Confederate chieftain.  To drive the point home Krick asserts that only Lee has been the victim of such attacks while Lincoln and Grant have been largely untouched.  This last point is patently absurd as anyone who follows Lincoln historiography knows.  In fact, if ever there was a "historian" whose conclusions followed from an agenda and little understanding of how to conduct research about Lincoln it is none other than Thomas DiLorenzo who was one of the panelists at this conference.

Krick is right about one thing that is there is a great deal of bad Civil War history out there.  However, basing one’s observations on bookss published 15 to 30 years ago does not help us understand more recent historiographical trends in the field. I understand that Krick’s next book on weather in Virginia during the Civil War is due out soon with the University of Alabama Press.  No one has a better grasp of Confederate military sources, so as always, I look forward to his next book.


Ron Maxwell’s Financial Troubles Continue

Looks like Ron Maxwell is still having trouble settling accounts with Washington County, Maryland where much of the "commercial flop" Gods and Generals was filmed

Washington County officials say they are considering suing "Gods and Generals" director Ronald F. Maxwell to force repayment of $300,000 the county lent him for work on another Civil War film that wasn’t made.

Maxwell has fallen about $56,000 behind on loan payments, The (Hagerstown) Herald-Mail reported Friday. County Attorney John Martirano said that unless Maxwell responds soon, the county might file a lawsuit to recover the money.

What will the Civil War enthusiasts do without another installment (The Last Full Measure) of overweight reenactors, sappy scriptwriting, unrealistic battle scenes, and Lost Cause nonsense?  Click here for an earlier post on Maxwell’s financial problems and here for one of his incoherent rants about immigration.

On a similar note, Dimitri reports that Gingrich and Forstchen are getting out of the Civil War fiction business and moving ahead to WWI.  No more silly movies or books from these three.  Good news all around.


“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”: Lee on Race and Emancipation

My research into Confederate reactions to the presence of USCTs at the Crater leaves little doubt that one of their primary fears was that defeat would lead to the overturning of a slave society.  From their perspective this outcome had nothing at all to do with slave ownership and had everything to do with losing control of a society where the institution of slavery guaranteed the continued separation of the races along with its well-entrenched hierarchy.  The archival record is very clear on this and Chandra Manning’s new book on Civil War soldiers and slavery confirms it. 

While the discussion of race and slavery within the ranks has been given new life in recent historical studies, Robert E. Lee’s own racial outlook continues to suffer at the hands of people who draw overly simplistic distinctions or who fail to place Lee within the proper social-economic context.  Luckily we have Lee himself who makes it very clear in a letter to Secretary of War James A. Seddon on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The letter was written on January 10, 1863:

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leave us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.

While the letters written by soldiers in the ANV who experienced the fight at the Crater were understandably much more emotional, Lee’s letter touches on the main themes.  Battlefield defeat for Lee meant nothing less than an overturning of the Southern racial hierarchy, and one can assume that his reference to "pollution" has something to do with miscegenation or at least a fear of more liberal rules governing the interaction of the races. 

The acknowledgment of such a racial outlook does nothing to my personal view of Lee since I am not invested in any specific moral image.  He is a figure from the past who held views about slavery and race which corresponded to widely held assumptions. 

Nothing surprising about that.