Letting Go

Yesterday I spent some time browsing through my local bookstore as I still have a substantial amount of money left over from student Christmas gifts in the form of B&N gift cards.  I spent a few minutes reading Harry Smeltzer’s short article on Civil War blogs in America’s Civil War.  Harry did a super job introducing readers to the pros and cons of blogging and a few of the better blogs currently in operation.

What I found interesting was the reaction of the few historians who were asked their opinions about blogs.  Both were direct in their overall concerns that since practically anyone can blog the field as a whole lacks credibility or they simply can’t bother sifting through the morass.  That may be too harsh an assessment, but it’s at least on target.  [Note: See Smeltzer’s comment to this post below.]While I agree that there is a lot of nonsense out there I don’t buy this reaction.  Can’t you ask the same question and substitute Civil War histories for Civil War blogs?  Most of the former is crap written by people who have not business writing history at all.  However, we don’t throw our hands up in the air in frustration we sift through the literature and look for signs of legitimacy.

The bigger problem is that blogging is still relatively new and its place within academia is still questionable.  Many academics blog anonymously rather than risk being shunned by their peers or in the worst case being denied tenure.  Whatever the reaction on the surface I’ve found that roughly half of my readers are from the academic world.  I can’t be sure that they are historians (professors or students), but they are logging on from their school’s servers.  Like any new technology change takes time.  Perhaps the pace is just right as it lends itself to being able to think through some of the tougher questions surrounding methodology/pedagogy.  Whatever the case it seems to me that we are beyond the questions of to blog or not to blog or what do you think about blogs.  The question now is what can we accomplish through blogging.

If anyone has any doubts about the possibilities that blogging offers to academics just check out Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out Of The Stone Age.


144th Anniversary Of Emancipation Proclamation

The most significant result of our Civil War was not that it gave us Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant or some battlefield to obsess over. 

1 comment

Sensing The Past

There is a very interesting post over at Boston 1775 on recent studies of the colonial experience and Revolution that focus on how people sensed their environments.  It’s a relatively new trend that although raises some interesting epistemological questions offers a unique perspective on some important historical questions.  I thought it might be useful to mention Mark M. Smith whose work is relevant to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and nineteenth-century America generally.  He is the author of three book, including Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South and Listening to Nineteenth-Century America.  His most recent book is titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  I’ve read the last two.  Here is the description from Listening:

Smith explores how northerners and southerners perceived the sounds associated
with antebellum developments including the market revolution, industrialization,
westward expansion, and abolitionism. In northern modernization, southern
slaveholders heard the noise of the mob, the din of industrialism, and threats
to what they considered their quiet, orderly way of life; in southern slavery,
northern abolitionists and capitalists heard the screams of enslaved labor, the
silence of oppression, and signals of premodernity that threatened their vision
of the American future. Sectional consciousness was profoundly influenced by the
sounds people attributed to their regions. And as sectionalism hardened into
fierce antagonism, it propelled the nation toward its most earsplitting
conflict, the Civil War.

As to the challenges that historians face in utilizing the sensory world to understand change and other analytical issues Bell briefly quotes from a review by John Demos which appeared in the London Review of Books:

One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a
matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of
measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so
on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty
lurking beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the
senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of
individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through
further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and
(for lack of a better term) emotional charging. . . .

Demos may be right regarding his assessment of the sensory in arguing that it only provides context rather than any insight into causation, but this may have more to do with the limits of our ability to interpret the past than the physical/psychological truth about how we interact with our environment and process sensory data.  I assume this is what he means by suggesting that we need a way to "measure" the sensory with the political, etc.   

Demos’s second point – if I understand him correctly – is that the sensory cannot in and of itself lead to action.  This is the old Enlightenment view that draws a sharp distinction between the external world and the processing that takes place in the brain once that information is received through the senses.  Demos seems to believe that only with some kind of "cognitive assessment" will the sensory be shaped in such a way that it brings about some kind of action/behavior or report.  The problem is in trying to pin down what Demos means by cognitive assessment; more than likely he means something along the lines of rational thought or decision making.  There is an obvious weakness in this view: if we pay careful attention to our daily routines we notice that most of the time we are not consciously assessing our environment.  Most of the processing – for lack of a better word – is automatic.  Now you could argue that some type of processing is still necessary; however, it may look nothing like Demos’s "cognitive assessment."  I still think that Demos’s point can be applied to our epistemological limits in assessing historical action.  While the sensory may indeed have causal properties we are not able to translate them into a causal explanation.

1 comment

Reenactors As Educators

Over at Civil War Power Tour Joshua Blair
recently commented on the "late unpleasantness" involving a reenactors
attempt at educating a group of students about the Civil War.  The
incident took place at historic Crossroads Village
in Mt. Morris, Michigan.  Apparently the reenactor handed out
enlistment papers to the students until he approached a black student
and commented that he would probably have been a slave.  I recall
commenting on this when the story broke.

I agree with Blair in his overall assessment of the situation:

They [reenactors] are not trained professionals or teachers. Therefore, the people that should be held responsible are the school’s
administrators. Did the administrators
not know that re-enactors are not professionals? If so, why did they believe a re-enactment
would be the most appropriate place for firsthand examination of American
history? There are many other places,
such as museums, that would have been more suitable for a field trip. The administrators should have evaluated the
sources of the presentation before deeming it appropriate for school children.

My only question is whether there is someone in the school
administration who would have been able to pick out any potential
problems with the presentation.  I am skeptical.  Reenactors can be a
useful source of information for a history class.  It is, however,
going to be difficult for the uninformed to be able to acknowledge who
the experts are in their craft and who simply has sufficient funds and
enough of an imagination to want to dress-up as a Civil War soldier.
I’ve run into many more of the latter, but I have to say that it is
quite impressive to watch and listen to someone who really does know
the history. 

When I say "know the history" I mean someone who is familiar with scholarly works
on the subject.  And there is no area more significant in this regard
than our understanding of the history of slavery.  To give you a sense
of how ill-informed this reenactor apparently was just think about the
fact that he could have given this student enlistment papers for a
U.S.C.T.  If he didn’t think this was appropriate, how about giving him
the role of a farmer.  Don’t most people know that there were free blacks in
the North before the war.  How about giving him the role of a fugitive
slave?  Even if there were relatively few in Michigan wouldn’t this have been more appropriate given the setting?  How many black students were in the group and would singling one student out have made for an unpleasant situation?  I don’t know. 

My guess is that this guy did not mean any harm and I agree that the outrage expressed after the incident was probably a bit over the top. 


Have A Safe And Happy New Year!


George L. Wood On Slaves and Slaveowners

A friend of mine who is a regular reader and currently studying Union regimental histories published right after the war sent me the passage below.  It is from George L. Wood’s “The Seventh Regiment [Ohio Infantry]: A Record” that was published in 1865.  The regiment was raised in northern Ohio, principally from Cleveland and surrounding counties.  One of the most important developments in the historiography of slavery and the Civil War since the 1960’s is the focus on the slaves themselves as full historical actors.  Up until recently the tendency was to downplay their role in understanding emancipation, and the Lost Cause assumptions that interpret slaveholders as paternalistic figures left us with little understanding or appreciation of how slaves viewed their situation.

While professional historians have moved beyond the naivety and implicit racism of this interpretation there are plenty of people who continue to interpret the institution of slavery as benign and in some cases as beneficial along some vaguely formulated “spiritual” view.  The danger is that the goal of trying to prop up the slaveholder as a paradigm of religious/moral virtue necessarily negates taking seriously the perspective of those who are being held in bondage.  Of course Southern slaveowners believed that what they were doing was for the good of their slaves.  Acts of kindness such as offering Bible lessons or starting a Sunday School were just the tip of the iceberg.  Their paternalistic assumptions were probably formulated in part as a reaction to the humanity of the people they owned.  In other words it was perhaps a way of coping with their acknowledgment on some level that slavery was a cruel and barbaric institution.  The passage below offers some interesting observations about how the slaves viewed their masters and their captivity.  The complexity of their outlook anticipates some of the observations made by Eugene Genovese in the early 1970’s. [Note: I don’t know anything about the author or his racial/political outlook apart from what can be reasonably surmised based on this passage.]

[77]  While at Charleston, we were deeply impressed with the profound interest the slaves were taking in passing events.  That down-trodden race, who had for years suffered every injustice at the hands of their white oppressors, were now the first to assist the Federal commanders. Through darkness and storm, they carried information, and acted as scouts and guides on occasions when it would try the heart and nerve of their white companions

From my own observation, I am confident that the slaves of the South, were just as well informed with regard to their relation to their masters, as we were.  They were, from the very first, impressed with the idea that this rebellion was to work some great change in their condition.  They were watching, with great interest, every movement of the troops, and were continually asking questions, as to the disposition to be made of them; thus evincing an interest in military affairs, of which their masters little dreamed. It is well enough to talk of the [78] deep devotion of slaves to their masters; but the latter have found ere this, I trust, that this devotion on which they have relied, has not prevented them from cutting their throats, when it was in the line of their duty, and by means of which they could gain their freedom.  An instance of this great devotion on the part of a slave for his master, was related to me while at Charleston.

A Mr. R—– owned a colored servant by the name of John; he enjoyed the unlimited confidence of his master, who was in the habit of trusting him as he would one of his children.  This confidence was reciprocated by a like devotion on the part of the slave for his master.  One day a neighbor told Mr. R—– that his John was about to run away, as he had repeated conversations with his servants on the subject.  Mr. R—– flew into a passion, feeling very much grieved that his neighbor should think, for a moment, that his John, whom he had raised from infancy, should prove so ungrateful as to leave him.  The only attention he paid to this timely warning was, to put still greater trust in his servant.  One day, shortly after this, John was missing; not only this, he had been so ungrateful as to take his wife and three children. The last heard from faithful John was, that he was safe in Ohio  Now Mr. R—– is a very good man and a Christian, and treat his servants very kindly; but that [79] God-given principle, a desire for personal liberty, actuated him in connection with other men of fairer complexion.  John, undoubtedly, left his old home and master with regret, but home and friendship, when compared with freedom, were nothing.

I was once told by a colored man, in whom the utmost confidence could be placed, that there has been for years an association among the negroes, which extends throughout the South, the purpose of which was one day to liberate themselves from slavery.  He said that hundreds of slaves who, apparently, were as innocent as ignorant, were tolerably well educated, and were secretly bending every energy to bring about an insurrection, which should end in their being released from bondage.  When asked if the field-hands were members of this association, he said they were; and although possessing less information than those living in the cities and villages, yet they were aware of what was going on; and after their work was done at night, they often met in their cabins, and talked over the prospect before them.  He also said, that in the larger cities of the South this association had regular meetings and officers; that they awaited only the proper time, when a tragedy would be enacted all over the South, that would astonish the world.

When we reflect that revolts have been common in the South, and they have been attend[80]ed by partial success, it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that this association did really exist.  The fact of the intense feeling of hatred cherished by the people of the South against Northern fanatics, as they were termed, who came amongst them, is strong evidence in favor of the existence of some organized course of policy among the negroes.  The outward appearance of the slave is usually gentle in the extreme, although his inward feelings may be agitated to
such a degree, that in a white man they would burst forth in the wildest passion.  Therefore, this hatred of the South to the opponents of slavery must be traced to a fear of some secret organization, the object of which lay deeply buried in the reticent minds of the slaves.  The Southern mind was more
deeply agitated, from the fact of the want of this outward emotion on the part of their slaves; for had this strong desire for liberty, which was awakened in them, burst out in wild enthusiasm, it would have been readily checked by the severe punishment of individuals; but it was this secret working of this deep-laid desire for freedom that troubled them. The most guilty were, to all outward appearance, the most innocent.

While the Federal army occupied the country, the slaves were much less guarded in what they said.  One of these slaves, an old man, was passing [81] a tent one day, when a soldier said to him that he belonged to Jeff. Davis.  With a knowing look, he replied: ‘I did; but now, massa, I belong to Uncle Sam.  A colored woman, who had been a slave for years (as she is very old), came into our room one day, and taking up a paper, asked if we wanted it.  Some one said to her, as she was about leaving the room, that she had better not be seen with that paper, as it was not the sort her mistress admired.  Said she, ‘I know what missus likes; I can take care of it;’ and slipping it under her apron she left the room.  That slave could read and write, and yet her master knew nothing of it.  So it is with many others.  It may be asked how they acquire this knowledge.  They gain it in a great many ways.  Many of them learn of their masters’ children, with whom house-servants spend a great deal of time.  Having acquired a slight knowledge, it
stimulates them to greater exertion.  They obtain scraps of newspapers and parts of books, and thus gain a great deal of information entirely unobserved.  Few persons, at the commencement of the rebellion, had the least conception of the vast resources and power of the slave population of the South.  And it was not until they had fed and clothed the Southern armies for two years, and by [82] this means kept them in the field, that it was acknowledged.  Had it not been for its slaves, the South, long ere this, would have been compelled to yield obedience to the Government.  The rebels appreciated and used this element of strength from the beginning.  The Federal Government, through the influence of weak-minded politicians, rejected it; thus throwing an element of its own strength into the hands of its enemies.

Notwithstanding this harsh treatment, the slaves proved true to the Government; and finally, through the medium of this faithfulness, their vast services were acknowledged, and they have not only been taken into the private service of the country, but they have been admitted into the army, to swell its numbers, until the strength of their mighty arms, and the nerve of their fearless hearts, are felt by the enemies of the country on every
battle-field.  What a glorious thought! thousands of the oppressed fighting for the redemption from slavery of a race which has ever worn the chain.  When it is remembered that by this strife questions are to be settled which have ever disturbed the harmony of this country, and not that only, but questions which, when settled, will release millions of our fellow-men and women from the power of the oppressor, ought we not to be thankful that we are permitted to make great sacrifices in so good a cause?”