The View From the Ground: Only for Academics?

I was wondering this morning how long it might take for reviews of The View From the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers to appear.  I decided to do a search and found a very short review in the Charleston Post and Courier.  The review was written by Richard Hatcher who works as a historian for the NPS at Fort Sumter and is co-author of an excellent book on Wilson’s Creek.  I was struck by his evaluation of the book and given that the review is so short it is presented here in full:

The title suggests this book is composed of a series of letters, diary or journal entries, or even reminiscences of Union and Confederate soldiers.  It is not. It is, in fact, a collection of nine academic essays on a number of contemporary issues soldiers faced.

These essays cover a variety of subjects, each of them between 18 and 20 pages. Union soldiers’ views on slavery and race and the manner in which Christians handled temptations of camp life present two general subjects. Discussions of how soldiers of the Fourth Texas Infantry accepted their officers, and which states’ troops deserved or earned the honor of victory at the Battle of the Crater represent more specific topics. Nine separate authors have contributed to this work, and while their styles differ widely, each reads as if it was directed toward an academic audience and not widespread Civil War readers.

It is likely that ‘The View From The Ground’ will appeal only to a limited number of readers outside the ranks of professional Civil War historians.

First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this volume will only appeal to a select group of readers.  That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review any book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you.  Now maybe I am being overly sensitive given that I am a contributor to this volume, but Hatcher’s comments touch on one of the primary motivations behind my research and this blog.  I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.

Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book.  After all aren’t many people interested in the religious and political lives of soldiers?  If you can’t say that the essays would help deepen understanding in these areas than say why, but to suggest that only fellow academics will find these essays interesting implies that there is no room for the general reader to further their understanding.  I do not write only for fellow academics.  Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.

A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible.  God knows we desperately need it.

The National Park Service and Lincoln Memorial: An Update

[Hat-Tip to GreeneSpace]

On February 22 I posted an item in response to National Review writer David L. Schaefer who criticized the NPS for part of its website on the Lincoln Memorial which contextualizes the building and commemoration of the site.  The article "Deconstructing the Lincoln Memorial" cites one short page of the website and generalizes from there in terms of the NPS’s failure to consider Lincoln’s emancipation record and role in saving the Union.  Even after a cursory scanning of the website it was clear that the NPS offers a fairly sophisticated account of the history of Lincoln and goes far in establishing his importance to the overall history of the country.  Unfortunately I learned today that the specific page referred to in the National Review piece has been deleted. 

Of course there is no way to know whether it is coincidence, but I suspect that pressure was placed on the NPS to delete it.  It’s disappointing to know that a poorly written article by someone who clearly had his conclusions drawn about the politics of the NPS could have this much influence on an institution that takes its responsibility of interpretating America’s historic places seriously.  We need to understand our memorials and other public sites not simply as memorials to the past, but as reflections of the individuals and society that created them.  Why would this be any different for the Lincoln Memorial?

Saving Turner Ashby’s Skirmish Sites

The D.H. Lee Martz Camp No. 10 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is asking James Madison University to donate land close to the Turner Ashby monument as part of a concerted effort to preserve the general’s battle skirmish sites.  The land in question is a lane which leads to the monument that marks the spot where Ashby was shot on June 6, 1862  The land would be donated to the commonwealth for the proposed Harrisonburg Battlefield State Park, which according to the SCV will enhance Jackson’s Valley Campaign. 

According to this article Harrisonburg officials no nothing about this request for land nor are they aware of any effort to create a state park.  This looks like a case of trying to drum up popular support by potentially making JMU look like the bad guy for failing to immediately hand over land in the name of another "chivalrous" Confederate general.  I think all Confederate generals embody this trait. 

Let’s see, keep the land and use it to help expand a decent university in the Shenandoah Valley or give it to the SCV.  Ahh…tough one.

More Than A Regret About Slavery

The decision on the part of the legislature of Virginia to issue a statement expressing regret about slavery is as much about memory as it is history.  From Slantblog:

"In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which
was the official history of Virginia for use in public schools — as decreed by
the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter
29:

‘…Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was
generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for
themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some
Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners
claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not
worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners
over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those
arguments.’"

From the comments section:

Georgia history textbooks were just as bad in their discussions of
slavery. A century ago, the most popular was The Student’s History of
Georgia, by Lawton B. Evans. The book contains six sentences on slave
life. Here are four of them: "Being well treated, they were free from
care, and were, therefore, happy, and devoted to their masters. After
the day’s labor they had their simple sports, such as dancing, playing
the banjo, and ‘possum hunting. They were fond of singing, even at
their work. And at night, around the fire in ‘the quarters,’ they would
sing their melodies in rich, musical voices."

How Close Are We?

“I see dead people.” The Sixth Sense (1999)

According to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown “we’re just two lifetimes removed from [the] ugly history of slavery.”  That acknowledgment seems to play an important role as Brown deals with the fallout surrounding the discovery that his ancestors were slaveowners.  What was once abstract becomes personal and immediate and the question of responsibility or guilt looms overhead.  National interest in slavery has increased over the last decade on the heels of academic scholarship which has been at work at least since the mid- to late-1960s.  In 1998 Edward Ball published Slaves in the Family which won a National Book Award and spawned a cottage industry of white Americans narrating their personal struggles to uncover and acknowledge family histories steeped in race and slavery.  Most of these books end in some kind of triumphant reunion and reconciliation with descendants of the slave families.  These books allow us to wade through the more disturbing aspects of race relations in America without giving up on a belief in a brighter future.  In recent weeks we learned of the connection between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond and the recent PBS series African American Lives has uncovered a very rich past for prominent black Americans such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker.  Finally, the state of Virginia expressed regret about the “peculiar institution.”

What I find to be so interesting is that we tend to be moving closer to this aspect of our collective past rather than moving away.  Time is collapsing rather than expanding.  Here is how Brown conceptualizes things:

The way I look at it, 1853 isn’t so long ago. That’s just two lifetimes. Let’s take that 5-year-old slave girl Sarah. It’s possible that she lived to be 82 years old. In her later years, she might have met and had some impact on some other little 5-year-old girl, who is now 82 herself. That brings you right up to today.  That 82-year-old could be somebody whose life has intersected with mine — or with my children’s — without my knowing it.  Maybe that’s too esoteric for your taste, but it seems pretty straightforward to me.

I use these kinds of examples all the time in the classroom and in the case of slavery, along with its companion Jim Crow, they are essential.  As a nation it would be an understatement to suggest that we are mildly uncomfortable when it comes to talking about the history of race and slavery.  We simply do not know how to do it without the discussion sliding into a childish slugfest of blame and personal guilt and white vs. black.  For those of us who study how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War and related topics the discussion of slavery and race hits like a ton of bricks because as a nation we have invested so much in ignoring the issues.  Our responses are telling: “The Civil War ended so long ago” or “I had no personal involvement so what business is it of mine?”  Brown’s analysis suggests that it’s not so long ago and that we would do well to consider his little thought experiment.

The people in my family owned other people. Black people. They passed on these black people in their wills as inheritance. They recorded this ownership in official records the same as if the black people were parcels of land…. Do I think I owe anybody financial reparations? No.  Do I feel some personal sense of obligation that I didn’t feel a week ago?  Yes, I think so. I’m not sure what form it should take, but at the very least, I think I have an even greater responsibility to be sensitive to racial issues.  Some people want to dismiss this as “white liberal guilt”….  I’m not telling anybody they should feel guilty.  I don’t personally feel guilty. But I’m not particularly comfortable with this new knowledge, either. [my emphasis]

I highlighted those two particular passages because they reflect a mature thinker and a profound sense of uneasiness which I personally value when writing and thinking about the past.   Brown is correct in noting that it’s not about guilt or personal responsibility for the actions and decisions of others.  The form it takes may be differ depending on the questions being asked or the background of the individual engaged in historical thinking.  The history of slavery/race should make us uncomfortable if we acknowledge the ways in which we are connected to it and shaped by it.  As Brown learned we may be interacting with it on a daily basis.