The Lost Cause is Alive and Well in Italy

Picture_002_2I had a wonderful time yesterday in Richmond and Petersburg with my new friend from Italy, Giuseppe.   We got an early start and headed straight to Petersburg for a tour of the earthworks and the Crater specifically.  It was quite interesting for me to be able to converse with Giuseppe as both a fellow Civil War enthusiast and as someone who is curious about how others think about the Civil War.  Giuseppe is a fellow high school history teacher and holds a doctorate in political science.  His English is excellent so there were no problems at all between us.  I was immediately struck by his level of interest in military history.  He rattled off the names of older Civil War historians and more recent scholars and displayed a remarkable grasp of the battles and leaders.  Giuseppe can tell you which division was in which corps and he could cite the officers as well.  We started at the Petersburg National Battlefield ParkPicture_2 where we tagged along on a guided tour.  At one stop the Park Ranger asked if anyone knew anything about the battle of the Crater.  I waited a few seconds and then raised my hand and cited a few facts.  I was awarded a shiny Junior Park Ranger badge which I will wear proudly whenever touring an NPS site.  Needless to say that he was very impressed with the battlefields and while we couldn’t spend hours walking around each spot we made sure to spend a significant amount of time at the Crater where we sat for a nice lunch prepared by my wife.  We ate Caprese sandwiches and drank Panna water which our guest very much appreciated.  I think Giuseppe was most impressed with the battlefield at Malvern Hill.  It is a wonderful battlefield that looks much like it did in 1862 and we took plenty of time to stand by the Union guns to survey and discuss the topography. 

Picture_003From there we followed the roads up past Glendale, Frazier Farm to Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor where we took short walks on both battlefields.  From there we drove to the Virginia Historical Society so Giuseppe could pick up some research material that he had copied and from there we made our way over to Carey Street for coffee and dinner.  We talked for hours about our common interest and spent considerable time talking about the influence of the Lost Cause on our respective perspectives.  For Giuseppe the influence is apparent from the first word.  He is absolutely enamored with Confederate generals and considers them to be both morally and militarily superior to their Union counterparts.  He is heavily influenced by the work of D.S. Freeman and films such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals; however, at the same time he admires the recent scholarship of Gary Gallagher which questions the veracity of much of this traditional view.  I appreciated Giuseppe’s willingness to allow me to probe his thinking and he was very forthcoming.  The most interesting aspect of all of this is that Giuseppe clearly understands that his influences are relatively narrow and have been shaped by the nature of the literature that he was exposed to at an early age.  I was surprised to learn that he sees the war in strictly economic terms and even more surprised by a comment about the supposed loyalty of slaves to the Confederacy.  I did not pursue the latter point with much force.  The conversation highlighted for me the pervasiveness of certain assumptions about the Civil War.

I was also interested to hear Giuseppe place his interest in the minutia of Civil War battlefields in broader context.  He pointed out that very few Europeans have such an interest in reference to their own battlefields.  They are much more interested in the broader political and economic issues that are both the cause and consequences of war.  This is more evidence that our own fascination with such details is more culturally specific to Americans than we would like to admit.    There is nothing wrong with this, but it does point to the question of why.  And no, just because you enjoy it is not a satisfactory answer.

All in all it was a fun day and I am glad that I took the initiative to offer to take Giuseppe around while he was in Richmond.  He is now off to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, and New York before he flies back to Italy at the end of the month.  I made a new friend and am guaranteed a first-rate tour of Naples next time we are in Italy. 



W.E.B. Du Bois on Robert E. Lee

"Either [Lee] knew what slavery meant when he helped main and murder thousands in its defense or he did not" — From an essay on Lee (1928)


Lee and Grant: An Exhibit

I will discuss my day on the Petersburg-Richmond battlefields yesterday at some point soon, but for now I want to encourage those of you in the Richmond area to see the Lee and Grant exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.  It has got to be one of the most visually stimulating Civil War exhibits that I’ve seen in some time.  The narrative takes Lee and Grant from their antebellum years through the Civil War and into the postwar years and reconciliation.  The text is informative and places the various images and artifacts, including their uniforms, in their proper context.

After closing at the VHS on March 31, 2008, Lee and Grant
travels to the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis (May 17,
2008–September 7, 2008); the New-York Historical Society in New York
City (October 17, 2008–March 29, 2009); the Museum of Southern History
in Houston (May 23, 2009–September 20, 2009); and the Atlanta History
Center (November 7, 2009–February 28, 2010).

Do yourself a favor and see it before it leaves the VHS and if you are in any of these other areas set aside a few hours to see it.  I would also encourage purchasing the exhibit book.


Cell Phones in Cafes

I own a cell phone, but most of the time I can’t tell you where it is and I honestly cannot remember the number.  You see, I hate talking on the phone, but more importantly, the idea of using it in a public space such as a cafe is absolutely abhorrent to me.  So, here I am sitting in a cafe grading papers and this women is yapping away with no care in the world and with no sense that those around her may not be interested in what her son is eating for breakfast.  Since I can’t say this directly to her, allow me to vent: SHUT THE F–K UP! 


The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

There has been a buzz about this series for a few years now.  The Littlefield Series will be comprised of sixteen volumes and is being edited by Gary Gallagher and Michael Parrish for the University of North Carolina Press and the Littlefield Fund for Southern History of the University of Texas at Austin.  While there has been nothing posted on UNC’s website I did receive a brochure which includes a brief announcement that the inaugural volume is scheduled for publication this November.  The first volume is by Elizabeth Varon and is titled Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859.  Additional volumes will be published through the Civil War Sesquicentennial and included by such notable scholars as Mark Grimsley, Mark E. Neely, and James McPherson.  If I remember correctly, McPherson is writing the volume on the navy, George Rable on religion, Joan Waugh on the common soldier, and Carol Reardon on the war in the East. 

Hey Grimsley, what subject are you tackling?

This promises to be an important series of books that should both synthesize the overwhelming amount of new scholarship which has emerged over the past few decades as well as offer new interpretations that will influence future scholars.