I’ll Tell You When Enough is Enough

Eric Wittenberg has an interesting post up in which he raises the issue of when a historian has collected sufficient research material for a given project.  While I sympathize with Eric and others in reference to this question I don’t believe the problem is as bad as he makes it out to be.  And the reason, as Eric points out, is that you can’t collect all of the relevant information.  Perhaps most of what is out there is still lying in shoe boxes in people’s attics.  Fortunately, you don’t have to collect all of it.  The piece of the puzzle that I wish Eric had discussed in more detail is the importance of analysis in historical interpretation.  It’s the analysis that needs to drive the project based on the materials collected.  There is always the concern that the analytical aspects of the interpretation are supported by insufficient materials; in the worst case scenario the historian simply begins with a set of assumptions and collects data that supports those assumptions  However, as long as the historian remains open to revision there is room for the interpretation to grow and hopefully become more sophisticated.  The relevant question is whether data that has the potential to significantly alter the analysis has not been uncovered. 

I am quite confident that there is plenty of material on the Crater that I missed in the course of my research.  There are no doubt some pretty colorful accounts of Confederates sharing their perceptions of having to fight black soldiers that would enliven my narrative.  That said, I am pretty confident that there is little out there that would significantly alter the main analytical points that I make in the manuscript.  I decided awhile back that I was not going to try to cram as many voices into the project just for the sake of inclusion.  My published work hopefully balances data and interpretation effectively. 

In the end there is no answer to the question of when enough is enough.  The philosopher Raymond Martin once likened the process to a "Brewmasters’ Nose."  You stir the pot around for a bit and if you do it long enough and fail at it a number of times you eventually "know" when it’s ready. 

So, my advice to Eric (whatever it’s worth) is to think about the main interpretive points that have been made and whether a sufficient range of materials have been collected which support those points. 

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Congratulations to Peter Carmichael

While on my daily run today I met up with a fellow historian who mentioned that Peter Carmichael has just been named the Eberly Distinguished Professorship in Civil War Studies at West Virginia University.  As many of you know Peter is currently Director of Graduate Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He has published widely, including a biography of William Pegram and more recently, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion.  In addition he has edited a nice collection of essays on Robert E. Lee

Over the past few years Peter has been kind enough to comment on my own work and has been instrumental in pointing out a number of publishing opportunities.  Not only is WVU getting a top-notch scholar, they are also bringing on board a great guy.

Congratulations Pete!

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Bringing the Civil War to the Classroom

I received a letter from a fellow teacher today and thought that given that a fairly large number of k-12 teachers read this blog I would respond in a way that might benefit all those interested:

I am teaching a class next year called “The Civil War and Reconstruction.” It is a semester class. We are the only school in my district, and maybe the state, to offer the class. I am searching for an appropriate text with supporting materials to use. The students will be college bound 11th and 12th graders. Any ideas would be appreciated. I will use Furgurson’s book as supplemental. (Freedom Rising) Any books I buy have to come out of my pocket since there is no budget. I am also looking for a good primary source packet. I would appreciate any ideas to help me get this class going. I have taught U.S. History survey courses for almost twenty years.

First, let me say that it is always nice to see teachers introducing the Civil War on the high school level.  The material literally teaches itself and you are likely to inculcate a love for history through the material.  There is an abundance of materials and much of it is worthless so it is important to be able to judge for quality.  As far as a textbook is concerned I tend to use titles that serve as supplements for other documents.  I assign pages for students to read as background and rarely as their primary reading.  You want to find something that is short, concise, and written by a competent scholar who understands historiography.  The best book I can recommend is Brooks Simpson’s America’s Civil War (Harlan Davidson, 1996).  It is 217 pages long, relatively inexpensive, and does an excellent job of balancing the relevant military, political, social, and economic factors.  I’ve also used This Terrible War: The Civil War and It’s Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland but it is too expensive and a bit more difficult to use in the type of class that I teach. 

There are a number of decent primary source texts that should be considered.  I’ve used with some success the volume from the Major Problems Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin.  It includes some very good primary sources as well as excerpts from various secondary sources.  Of course you can find pretty much anything online if you know where to go.  Check out some of the links on the left hand side of the blog as a place to start. 

I’ve taught my Civil War course as both a readings class and as a research seminar.  In the case of the former my textbook supplements articles and chapters from various secondary sources.  One of the best sources is North and South Magazine which I’ve used with great success.  The articles are authored by some of the top scholars who understand the complexity of the subject and are able to convey these issues to a wide audience.  Back in 2005 I published an article on how I use this source in the OAH’s Magazine of History.  I want my students to understand that the Civil War is incredibly complex, and the best way that I’ve found to introduce students to this is by using the work of professional historians.  My classes are structured as seminars where students take turns leading the discussion and focusing the class on thesis evaluation.  In addition to printed material I’ve used segments from Ken Burns to illustrate interpretive points through film as well as music.  Last semester I used Ken Burns and a chapter in a recent edited collection to highlight the way we perceive Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army.

I have also organized the class as a research seminar where students spend the semester researching various topics from the Valley of the Shadow.  Students are introduced to every aspect of the research process from the formulating of questions to learning how to properly document sources.  Throughout the semester students are required to update the class on their progress and share both ideas and source material.  Fortunately, I have a mobile laptop lab with 16 computers, but you could conceivably use a computer lab on campus if available. 

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So Simple Even My Students Understand It

[An attempt to connect some ideas that are currently floating around in my head into one coherent post.]

Today I took a small group of students up to Chancellorsville.  We spent about 4 hours driving to different locations and had lunch on the battlefield.  Our stops included the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the spot where Lee and Jackson met for the final time.  We followed Jackson’s flank march and ended up back at the Visitor’s Center where we followed Jackson’s reconnaissance and fatal shots.  Following lunch we drove over to Hazel Grove where I discussed the action on May 3.  The Park Service has done quite a bit since the last time I visited the battlefield.  The trees around Fairview have been cut, which provides an excellent view from Hazel Grove and makes it very easy to interpret the ground along with its significance to the fighting.  At the Chancellor House I noticed two new markers by the remnants of the foundation.  One focuses on the Chancellor slaves and the other on the Chancellor women who were forced to take refuge in their basement for much of the battle.  I mentioned that the two markers reflected an attempt on the part of the Park Service to broaden their interpretations of the military to include issues of race, slavery, and civilian life.  At one point I mentioned that this was a divisive debate and that many believe that the Park Service should stick to coverage of the movement of troops and other issues strictly related to battles and campaigns.  As we walked back to the bus one of my students inquired why this was so controversial.  If I remember correctly the student said: "Isn’t it true that civilians and slaves were often caught up in the confusion of battle?"  Leave it to a student to reduce an emotionally-charged debate down to the essentials.

Speaking of civilians I’ve read a few reviews of "Sherman’s March" and am not surprised to find that there are people who will continue to take issue with the "destructiveness" of his campaign and the image of the Union army as engaged in plunder and rape.  I don’t mind that people still find a reason to get emotional about it all, but I refuse to consider it as having anything to do with history.  As I toured the battlefield today I thought a bit about our tendency to understand Georgia’s civilian population as a white civilian population.  Apparently, Georgia’s blacks do not count in many peoples attempts to understand Sherman’s movements.  The two groups experienced that march very differently, which must be acknowledged by historians in writing about the campaign.  This acknowledgment is not a moral judgment, but the result of a responsibility to tell as complete a story as possible.  What I find so fascinating is the tendency of many to identify with people who lived during the Civil War.  Yes, there are people who have ancestors who fought on both sides, but even here I wonder whether such a close identification is useful in and of itself as a means to greater understanding.  I say this as someone who has no personal connection to the war nor as someone who was raised on stories of the war or groomed on battlefields during my formative years.  I didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.   

What I mean to say is that I have absolutely no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side.  I am pleased that slavery ended as a result of the war, but I have no interest in any moral identification with the men on the battlefield or with the civilian leaders in Richmond and Washington, D.C.  As a historian my primary interest is in better understanding why events transpired from as many perspectives as possible.  I am not psychologically wedded to any assumptions about the relative goodness of Southerners vs. Northerners, but I am fascinated by people who do.  You can see it in people’s expressions when they leave the realm of history to another place that is more about their own personally constructed ideas about what happened and what it means that it happened.  While I admit to finding the language and tone worth dissection it is not from the perspective of a historian, but as someone who is interested in the ways we become emotionally invested in our ideas of the past. 

Sherman’s march brings this out in a visceral kind of way.  Most people find a need to reduce his decisions down to an overly simplistic condemnation as if Sherman was the first and last general to bring war to civilians.  Interestingly we tend not to have these types of discussions when it comes to the bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII.  The Civil War was not WWII but the kind of war fought was similar if not much more severe.  Allied planes bombed many cities into rubble which collapsed any neat/traditional distinction between military and civilian targets.  The latter, one could argue, were targeted to bring about military ends.  Within this broader context Sherman’s campaign was mild at best.  His army destroyed infrastructure and lived off the land to survive and this served to drain the will to continue to fight from many on the home front.   Please don’t write  me to share the personal hardship stories of ancestors or to try to convince me of some vague "moral monster" label that you believe ought to be applied to Sherman.  I am not interested.  I have nothing at stake in the way I perceive Sherman as a moral being.  I don’t get goose bumps from certain images or from my own self-perceptions of the general.  Again, I am interested in historical questions surrounding the campaign.  How can the campaign be understood as a logical extension of Union war policy?  Did it succeed?  How did Sherman and his men relate to the civilian population – both black and white?

To those of you who have watched "Sherman’s March on the History Channel I would ask you to think about any strong reactions you may have.  Are your reactions the result of careful review of recent published works, including biographies of Sherman as well as studies of the campaign?  Or is it an extension of deep-seated feelings that have more to do with the luck of family and geography than with a genuine interest in the past?

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This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s W.T. Sherman: A Review of the History Channel’s “Sherman’s March”

[If you haven't done so already make sure you read the guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played Sherman in the movie.]

Little has changed in the format of historical documentaries since the 1990 release of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  The formula is straight-forward: It includes interviews with respected scholars, powerful imagery, narrative voice, and the words of the historical actors themselves.  The final product must balance a respect for historical interpretation, entertainment, and drama.  Different parties are rarely satisfied, but that is perhaps inevitable in a medium that works to blend what appear to be competing elements.  All too often the goal of entertainment takes precedent over sound scholarship even if the program includes short clips of interviews with respected scholars.  Perceptive viewers must deal with and balance what appear to be distinct narratives, one from the historical advisers and the other provided by the narrator.   While the scholars attempt to infuse the latest in historical scholarship to the production they are often drown out by a narrator who pushes a more traditional/mythical line of interpretation.  While I strongly disagree with a number of interpretive points, roughly 15 years later Ken Burns continues to set the standard for what is possible in the genre of historical documentaries.

More common in recent years is the inclusion of scripted scenes involving reenactors, which lends itself to more of a movie-style approach.  The danger here is that movie producers end up with a final product that entertains more than it educates.  With this in mind I turn to a review of the History Channel’s latest historical production titled Sherman’s March.  I should say at the outset that I went into the viewing of this movie with very low expectations.  It’s been a number of years since I watched the History Channel (we don’t have cable television) and all I can remember are endless loops of documentaries about 20th century military technology and the last days in Hitler’s Bunker.  You can understand my skepticism. 

With this in mind I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this movie from the perspectives of both an educator/historian and as someone who wants to be entertained.  A production like this needs to do both well.  The producers of Sherman’s March educate by including an impressive list of historical advisers, including historians John Marszalek, Joseph Glatthaar, Steven Woodworth, Mark Grimsley, Theodore Delaney, and Christine J. Carter along with the voices from primary sources.  The movie entertains with scripted scenes that feature William T. Sherman  (played by Bill Oberst Jr.), his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant as well as Sherman’s relationship with his men.  Finally, there are the various battlefield scenes involving Confederate and Union reenactors.  The computer-generated visuals are pleasing to the eye, especially the scenes which depict Atlanta in flames, which actually looks like its burning.

For a movie like this to succeed it must offer a smooth transition between the historical advisers ("talking heads") and the scripted scenes.   The campaign must be understood from multiple perspectives and the script cannot confine itself to the all-too-common language of "rape" and "plunder."  Based on the amount of time that the historical advisers enjoy in the final version it is obvious that the producers wanted to ensure that viewers were introduced to the latest in historical scholarship.  From Marszalek we learn that the campaign is best understood as "psychological war on the South" and from Glatthaar that this was an "attack on infrastructure."  [The only problem with such a strong emphasis on historical advisers is that at times their presence is overwhelming, which makes it difficult to maintain the overall narrative flow. Still, viewers are forced to think about the burning of Atlanta (30% of the city) and the march through Georgia within a political context and as a logical step in the overall Union strategy to win the war.  This approach runs the risk of alienating those who are wedded to their preferred explanations or interpretations of Sherman.  I think it is important to keep in mind, however, that for these people no amount of history is going to shake the foundation of their preferred explanation.  In these cases beliefs are not about history, but about something else entirely.

The attention to perspective is never lost in this movie, but the challenge of how to represent white Southerners in the path of Sherman’s army is an interesting one.  White Southern women bore the brunt of this campaign, but as many of the advisers point out at the end of the movie, there is a great deal of myth surrounding this campaign.  The solution is to find wartime rather than postwar sources which highlight their hardships without the more vitriolic and suspect accounts that paint Union soldiers as engaged in mass rape.  Producers rely on Dolly Binge who owned 100 slaves and who offers a very descriptive account of what it was like to have to face foragers ("bummers) who sought both food and other valuables.  The viewer hears the voice of Binge who describes these men as "demons" who "rush in."  Mark Grimsley offers a few comments that point out the essential differences between the way Union soldiers and Southern white women viewed these operations: "Foraging operations are not how a Southern woman experienced it."  Christine Carter follows by noting that these raids "intend to be personal violations" of home and property.  Such commentary serves to keep the focus on history rather than raw emotion. 

Given my own research interests it should come as no surprise that I would point to the slave perspective as a crucial addition to the understanding of the campaign that is offered in this movie.  The issue is complex and filled with even more misunderstanding.  The segment begins by bringing the viewer back to January 1, 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation along with the recruitment of black men into the Union army.  From the perspective of Georgia’s slave population Sherman’s army is seen as a liberating army.  Glatthaar suggests that many Union soldiers were disgusted by their contacts with the slaves along with their harrowing stories of bondage and the sight of scars.  Steve Woodworth makes the important point that Union soldiers "trust the slaves" as guides and for protection in the case of separation from the rest of the army.  Theodore Delaney makes it a point to note that Sherman does not share the enthusiasm of some of his and his stand against the recruitment of black soldiers is mentioned and also mentions that the Union army included a wide range of racial attitudes.  That said, the commentators emphasize that events on the ground and Sherman’s own practical concerns forced him to take steps that he otherwise would not have taken.  [Such a view echoes Chandra Manning's latest study of how the war altered the way Union soldiers viewed race and slavery.]  These include the formation of a Pioneer Brigade made up of newly-freed slaves who were charged with building roads and other structures.  Some will no doubt find the commentary and scenes of Sherman interacting with the slaves as an attempt to rewrite the past.  At one point one of the talking heads suggests that while Sherman held racist views he was able to easily engage individual blacks along the march.  At one point Sherman is shown talking with the head of a black family and asks, "What do you think of this war?"  The man responds: "Mighty depressing, but without it the right thing would never get done."  At another point in the discussion Sherman mentions that the Confederacy is thinking about recruiting black soldiers and inquires, "Will you fight against us?"  The response leaves little doubt as to the wartime loyalty of black Southerners: "The day they give us arms will be the day the war ends."

The movie covers the crossing of Sherman’s army across Ebeneezer Creek which left 600 freed slaves within striking distance of Confederate General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry.  Grimsley captures the significance of the moment by mentioning that these people went "from freedom to being reenslaved."    Glatthaar described it as a "sad moment" and the newly-freed slaves as having "felt horribly double-crossed."  The strongest words come from Delaney, who while describes the decision as "practically justified" given the material constraints on the army, concludes that Union General Jefferson C. Davis (slaveowner) had a "problem with humanity" and "acted disgracefully."  In the end, Sherman’s decision is understood as militarily necessary and almost as another example of the harshness of "hard war."  The coverage of this incident serves to balance the suggested Union racial outlook as understood in earlier scenes.

The movie does not shy away from pointing out the destructiveness of the campaign and the acts of cruelty that were exhibited on both sides.  There is coverage of the battle of Griswoldville which left 600 Confederate casualties, many of whom were older men and younger boys.  Some viewers will no doubt point to a bias in the tendency of the narrator and commentators to attempt to justify Union foraging operations as "legitimate activity."  I suspect that the attempt to reach a balance between Union military aims and Confederate retaliation will be seen as "revisionist" given traditional interpretations which take a white Southern perspective as paramount.  There are scenes describing the burning of Millen and the use of Confederate prisoners to uncover torpedoes placed in the road by Confederate forces, but there are also images of murdered Union soldiers in both Georgia and North Carolina. 

While multiple perspectives are presented in this movie it is clear that this is Sherman’s story.  There is an emphasis on forcing the viewer to understand Sherman’s decisions within a strict military context.  Distinctions are drawn between the way Sherman orders his men to treat the property and civilians in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  Sherman’s orders in N.C. remind his men that the state barely voted for secession while in S.C. his men are given more liberal orders.   

Though it is unlikely that their comments will have much effect most of the historians offer a few final thoughts concerning the postwar mythologizing about Sherman’s March.  Woodworth suggests that white Southerners dealt with defeat by creating the image of Sherman as a brutal monster.  Marszalek emphasizes that Columbia was not burned to the ground by the Union army.  He gets at many of the exaggerated postwar accounts by reflecting on the number of people who have approached him over the years to share stories of the burning of ancestor’s farms.  In all almost every case, according to Marszalek, the location of the home of the ancestor in question was nowhere near the route of Sherman’s army.  Finally, Theodore Delaney offers some perspective in reminding viewers that Ulysses S. Grant killed many more white Southerners compared with Sherman; he goes on to suggest that he would much rather have a general destroy property as opposed to people.

This program is not going to satisfy everyone.  I fear that for many the movie is going to bring out the typical cries of "revisionism."   For others it will no doubt challenge long-standing assumptions and may even lead to further reading.  I would recommend that viewers look at the published work of the historical advisers as the best place to start.  John Marszalek is the author of an excellent biography of Sherman while Steve Woodworth’s latest book on the Army of Tennessee covers their march through Georgia and the Carolinas.  Joe Glatthaar’s study of Sherman’s March is one of the best analytical studies of the campaign.  Finally, you don’t want to ignore Mark Grimsley’s first-rate study of the evolution of the Union war effort.

Let me end with a comment made by Bill Oberst Jr.:

"I hope Sherman’s March
rises above the standard. I hope it represents an evolution in the form. I hope
it raises more questions than it answers. A war, even a long-ago one, is not a product. It is the collective story
of real people who could never forget the hell that they lived through. We owe
it to them to remember, and to try and get it right."

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