My wife and I spent part of the weekend in Washington, D.C. before we had to cut our trip short owing to a severe cold that I caught on Friday. Any trip to Washington must include a stop at one of the major bookstore chains. Here in Charlottesville we have a Barnes and Noble, but given that this is a university town you would assume that this particular branch would have a deep selection of books in most subject areas. That is not the case at all. The Civil War section is absolutely pathetic as are most other areas of history. I enjoy bookstores, especially the chance to spend some time browsing through different titles. You can find anything on Amazon, but there is still something to being able to hold a book and flip through its pages.
Our first stop was the B&N on M Street in Georgetown. I thought they would have a much better selection compared with C-Ville; too my dismay the selection was even worse. In fact their entire U.S. History selection was a disappointment and I was able to walk through it in less than 5 minutes. That night we walked over the Borders on L and 17th Street after dinner. The difference is night and day. I tend to read university press books so it was nice to see a selection of recent titles from most of the presses. I found and purchased Brian Dirck’s new edited collection Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of Race (Northern Illinois University Press, 2007). [I recently heard Philip S. Paludan give a talk at the Univeristy of Virginia where he touched on the topic of his contribution to the collection.] In short, the selection is much deeper. Better yet they divide U.S. History into sections, including Colonial/Revolution, Civil War, Nineteenth Century and Modern History. I don’t know how you explain the difference in selection. Perhaps buyers are more focused on a given area and have the opportunity to ensure that each section is well stocked. Whatever the case I miss not having this selection in my hometown.
I should come clean and say that I’ve known about this difference in selection for quite some time. Back in the mid-1990s I worked for a Borders store in Rockville, Maryland. It’s a large store and the selection is excellent. At the time I managed the magazine section so I was not involved with the stocking or ordering of books. It was a great place to work at the time, and it was here where I fell in love with Civil War history. I ran a Civil War book club that met once a month and typically included the historian whose book we were discussing Guests included Craig Symonds and Kevin C. Ruffner. I also organized a one-day Civil War book signing that included Brian Pohanka, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, William Matter, Greg Clemmer, Craig Symonds and others. It was a lot of fun.
Address of Gen. E. Porter Alexander Delivered on Alumni Day, West Point Military Academy Centennial, June 9, 1902
“There resulted many years of bitterness and estrangement between the sections, retarding the growth of national spirit and yielding but slowly, even to the great daily object-lesson of the development of our country. But at last, in the fullness of time, the stars in their courses have taken up the work. As in 1865 one wicked hand retarded our unification by the murder of Lincoln, so in 1898 another assassin, equally wicked and equally stupid, by the blowing up of the Maine, has given us a common cause and made us at last and indeed a nation, in the front rank of the world’s work of civilization, with its greatest problems committed to our care.”
Savannah Morning News, March 6, 1907 (Excerpt from Gen. Floyd King’s Address to the March meeting of the Confederate Veterans Association on Jubal Early and the Valley Campaign)
“You fought comrades, and you suffered Confederates, in the cause of the white man—for the upholding and the maintenance of the dignity and supremacy of the white man; for the preservation and the purity of the white race. That cause still lives, and will live forever. As long as there is a white man on earth; as long as the eternal God rules the universe and dwells in the heavens, that cause, your cause, will live. ‘Tis true the federal government is saved, and I pray it may ever remain. But under the government, and those of the states by the decree of God, the cause of the white man must and shall be fought to a final and eternal triumph.”
Many of my readers who find much of what I have to say about Robert E. Lee to be offensive may be surprised to learn that he is in my mind the second most interesting figure from the Civil War. I’ve read at least 10 major biographies about Lee, including the 3-volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman. It remains my favorite biography of Lee even thought it is dated in certain respects. In the end, however, few know Lee better than Freeman. Discerning readers are no doubt able to distinguish between my thoughts concerning how many have chosen to remember Lee as opposed to those who approach the subject with a sincere interest in analytical history. The bicentennial of Lee’s birth has given us a great deal of fluff, but little serious public history.
An exception to this is the work being done at Washington and Lee University which explores Lee’s role as educator. There are a number of interesting exhibitions, lectures, and publications associated with this project that will surely enrich our understanding of this important period in Lee’s life as well as the life of the college.
As troubling as the news is coming out of the Museum of the Confederacy the thought that management would even consider meeting with representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is mind-boggling. I would rather see the museum close its doors permanently than hand over its rich collection of artifacts to a group that would use it to fashion a narrow and self-serving historical account. I have not heard one word about what qualifies this organization to run a museum. Does anyone really believe Frank Earnest when he says that "We [SCV] will take whatever steps necessary to maintain…the integrity of the Museum of the Confederacy." If the SCV is serious about helping than they should take steps to raise funds and organize activities that will help the museum’s financial situation and site problems.
I’ve stated numerous times on this blog just how much I value the MOC’s work as both a teacher and historian. Their educational programs challenge our basic assumptions about the Confederacy and their collection has been used to create the best in Civil War exhibits. Perhaps the SCV would like to get their hands on the museum as a way to challenge the new American Civil War Center at Tredegar, which they must find horrifying given its emphasis on the role of race and slavery as defining features of the war.
I do hope that these stories about a possible meeting with the SCV turn out to be false.
Given the recent news surrounding the Museum of the Confederacy and the latest news regarding the SCV’s interest in taking control of the board of directors, I thought I might share this letter-to-the-editor written by S. Waite Rawls. The letter is in response to an article which appeared in a recent issue of the University of Virginia Magazine on new tours of the grounds that explore slave life on campus. The article is titled "Scripting History" and was written by Paul Evans who is a teaching colleague of mine.
"Scripting History" in the winter issue was very interesting, as it pointed out the great difficulty of dealing with many aspects of American history that preceded the abolition of slavery. Monticello and Mount Vernon do a very good job of dealing quite frankly and accurately with the slave labor that supported Jefferson and Washington, yet a cloud hangs over both men in the culture of our current times.
It is even more difficult, yet more important, when the topic changes to the Civil War and, especially, the Confederacy. Several years ago, I became president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. It is the oldest, largest and most important Civil War museum and research library in the country. The Civil War is one of, if not the most important portions of American history that all Americans should understand, regardless of whether their ancestors fought in gray or in blue, or were still in India, Mexico or China. Yet the cloud of slavery hangs heavy over all things Confederate these days, and normally intelligent people would rather erase the memory than discuss it–more reminiscent of efforts in China, Russia, or Afghanistan to erase history than what we Americans are supposed to do.
Instead, Americans should work hard to understand the real history of why the Civil War came about, and how it was fought, and what its outcomes have been. That is particularly true of graduates of Mr. Jefferson’s University, which furnished twice as many officers for the Confederate army than any other school