What’s in the Hopper?

At about this time every year I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel that is summer vacation.  Ideally speaking that means three months of research and writing.  I am hoping that this year will be more productive than last year, which included a trip to Europe for a funeral and an overall malaise.  It is very difficult to balance the demands of teaching and research; obviously the former takes priority for me.  I still don’t see how Jeff Wert was able to remain so productive as a high school teacher, though I understand he hired out much of the archival research.  Now that’s a great idea and I might be tempted to do it if I had the finances.  I say "tempted" because I actually enjoy snooping around in the archives.  As disturbing as it sounds I enjoy the smell of old documents.  I still remember researching Col. John Bowie Magruder of the 57th Virginia at the University of Virginia back in 2001.  Magruder wrote a letter home just after the battle of Fredericksburg describing the cold temperature and the fire that he was sitting next to as he wrote.  You can see the the little burn marks from the fire. 

So here is what is on tap.  First, I am finishing a chapter for an edited volume on the Petersburg Campaign.  Most of you probably know what series I am referring to, but I don’t want to be specific until the paper has been submitted and approved.  The paper is pulled from my Crater manuscript and focuses on the memory of black Union soldiers between 1864 and 1937.  I am close to finishing this project.  I am also close to finishing the journal article on Confederate military executions.  This project has been the albatross of my existence for the past two years; however, my recent talk on the topic has reignited my determination to see it through to completion  Over the summer I am going to try to finish my edited project on Capt. John C. Winsmith.  The letters are transcribed and all that needs to be done is the editing and an introduction.  This is a big project. 

This summer I will also be working with my former advisor Robert Kenzer on an analytical essay on Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  We are going to analyze a large amount of data pulled from the series in hopes of placing it within a larger historiographical context as well as to see whether criticisms of the series hold up.  There is a chance that this essay will turn into an interesting book.  Stay tuned.  Finally, I’ve been asked to contribute to the online journal at the Ambrose Bierce Project, which is edited by Craig Warren.  This will be a special issue to be published in December 2007 that will focus on Bierce and memory.  I am excited about this project as I don’t know that much about Bierce other than the few stories that I’ve read.   

Sometimes it is helpful to write things down in order to get a clearer perspective on what it will take to complete all of your commitments.  Now that I’ve done so I think I will go to the beach for three months.

Bowling’s Civil War

Charles Bowery commented earlier today that he was curious re: Brag Bowling’s reference to “the good general Confederate community.”  Who does he have in mind?  More importantly, we might ask what Bowling’s vision for the Museum of the Confederacy involves.  Thanks to Brooks Simpson who sent along the following link we have a clear statement from Bowling himself that goes back a few years to the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar.  This passage appeared in The Weekly Standard:

“Ten years ago I started to learn about my family. I read intensively, everything I could–not just politically correct history but also other history that’s been suppressed. That’s the way this learning process often starts. My great grandfather served in the Army of Northern Virginia as private under General Robert E. Lee. He was at Sharpsburg–Yankees call it Antietam–at Chancellorsville, other places. And like 90 percent of the soldiers who fought for and served the South, he never owned a slave.

“So–just to show you how the thought process works, for people who are still capable of thinking for themselves–so I thought, well, why is that? If the war is all about slavery, why’s he fighting so hard? It didn’t fit, you see, with everything I’d been taught about the Civil War. Like all his comrades, my great-grandfather gave everything he had. Why? He did it for his country. The South had bad everything–bad munitions, bad clothing, bad food. But they had the best men. They gave everything they had. And they did not do that to defend slavery.”

The war wasn’t about slavery for Lincoln, either, Bowling explained. He ticked off the particulars of his indictment of Lincoln. With his generals he invented the concept of Total War, and waged campaigns of unprecedented savagery against noncombatants and private property in the Shenandoah Valley, the March through Georgia, and elsewhere. He was the father of Big Government, vastly expanding the reach of Imperial Washington in ways unthinkable to the country’s founders. The Northern victory was a triumph for a commercial culture, controlled by Big Business, over a Southern culture of farms and small towns that asked only to be let alone.

“It was all about power,” he said. “Six hundred thousand dead. All so Lincoln and his friends could consolidate their power to tell other people how to live their lives.”

I can just picture the special exhibit on slavery.  Thanks again Brooks.

Museum of the Confederacy Receives State Funding

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is expected to approve $400,000 in aid to the Museum of the Confederacy.  See the story here.  Apparently Brag Bowling – former post commander – is still hoping for an invitation or opportunity for the Virginia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans to exert more influence over the operations of the museum.  If you missed my earlier post I have it on good authority that there are no planned talks with the SCV. 

"We don’t have to take the thing over, but if there is a way the SCV could exert more influence and help them, we want to do it," Mr. Bowling said yesterday. "I honestly feel they have kind of lost their way and kind of separated themselves from the good general Confederate community."

Thanks for the offer Brag, but many of us would like to see the MOC continue to focus on history and not fantasy.

Follow Up to Post on History Textbooks

Matt over at Southern Pasts applauds the idea of emphasizing individual works of history rather than the standard textbook.  He rightly connects the possibility of such a move with the spirit of the recent report, "The Next Generation of History Teachers."  [I commented on this report a few weeks back.]  Matt gets to the heart of the matter here:

History, in my opinion, is about understanding the complexity of human events—the intersections of people and places and things and ideas. Rather than attempting to draw a set of guidelines for the future, students should be pushed to question the past on its own terms. Why did certain people make certain decisions? What impact did the actions of this group have on that group? Do we see changes? Continuity? How does our understanding of the past directly impact the way we make decisions today? Does history really matter?

Too often, textbooks fail to encourage these kinds of questions. Instead, they tend to provide a fairly simplistic “master narrative” of history, one which places an overwhelming emphasis on political history, often to the detriment of other approaches.

I do think it is important to acknowledge that textbooks can serve an important function, especially for students who need a foundation structured around a master narrative broken down into discrete sections.  And there are indeed textbooks that do just this and present history in all of its richness and complexity.  There is an excellent online textbook over at Steven Mintz’s Digital History site, which could be assigned for background reading as we move through the various texts.  Keep in mind that this idea is for my regular American history survey courses and not for the AP classes.  I simply do not see how the class could dispense with the textbook approach given the AP curriculum and its emphasis on content.  That said, there are aspects of the curriculum, namely the DBQ essay, that forces students to think deeply about the American past. 

I am working with one of my teaching colleagues on a list of books that could be used in such a course.  As I mentioned in that previous post I’ve been thinking about such a move for the past few years but for one reason or another failed to make the move.  Teaching can be like any other job where you grow sufficiently comfortable with a certain process and resist change. I believe it is absolutely essential for teachers to keep their end of the classroom fresh and challenging for their own well-being.

Society of Civil War Historians Comes of Age

I was pleased to learn that the Society of Civil War Historians is going to expand the scope of their activities in the near future.  The SCWH is a small group of historians who meet once a year for a special session at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  Other than the meeting there is a newsletter that is released quarterly which reports on upcoming meetings and other related items.  The plan is to expand operations to include a biennial conference held in late May or early June.  While Florida Atlantic University will continue to serve as the organizational home of the SCWH, Penn State’s Richards Civil War Era Center will co-sponsor.  Membership dues will be increased but members will receive the journal Civil War History

I am sure that most people associated with the organization were pleased to receive this news along with a copy of the constitution for their approval.  This is a much needed development which should work to bring even more attention to those currently engaged in the serious study of the Civil War era.