Are You A Civil War Buff?

Over at Civil War Power Tour blogger Joshua Blair provides a nice outline of the recent debate over the distinction between professional and amateur historians.  He identifies himself as a Civil War buff but is uncomfortable with the label: "I am considered your regular, old Civil War buff.  Here we go again with the labels.  A label, I might add, that I scoff at.  It sounds so mid-nineteenth century beefcake to me."  I read this and was reminded of an earlier post on "Civil War buffs." This was originally posted in December 2005

As I was putting the finishing touches on my AHA paper a few weeks ago I reread parts of Stephen Cushman’s book, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle. The book is about the Battle of the Wilderness and was published in 1999. I’m sure you Civil War bibliophiles out there are probably wondering how you could have missed a recent examination of this battle. Well, don’t worry; this is not your typical Civil War battle history. In fact, it’s not a battle study at all, but a reflection on the way the event has been represented or imagined in letters, diaries, memoirs, public celebrations, and histories. And Cushman is not a historian, but an English Professor at the University of Virginia. Although it may be tempting to dismiss him because of this, I find that Cushman brings a fresh perspective, fueled by his background in literary analysis and a solid grasp of the historiography surrounding this battle. The combination makes for a very enjoyable and reflective read.

There is a very short chapter in the beginning of the book which examines the meaning of the label “Civil War buff.” Cushman notes that the word “buff” is defined by Webster’s New International “As an enthusiast about going to fires”, and by the Third New International as a “Fan, Enthusiast, Devotee.” A recent Random House Dictionary defines “buff” as “a devotee or well-informed student of some activity or subject.” Cushman then proceeds to explain what troubles him about these definitions:

What’s wrong with the definitions above, or, more accurately, what is incomplete about them, immediately becomes apparent when we try to use buff as though it were merely a neutral synonym for a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable person. If, for example, one were to call a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable student of Christianity “a Jesus buff,” that epithet would sound disrespectful and offensive to many ears. Or if we called a passionately committed specialist in the history of the Nazi concentration camps “a Holocaust buff,” the tasteless trivializing behind the phrase would be palpable. We would never think of describing Abraham Lincoln as a “Union buff,” Jefferson Davis as a “states rights buff,” or Frederick Douglass as “an abolition buff.” (p. 22)

The problem with these definitions, if I understand Cushman, is the tension between the seriousness on the one hand and the playfulness or hobbyist nature of the buff. It is this latter quality that I was trying to point out in my earlier post, “Civil War Entertainment.” Cushman is correct to point out that it is only with the passage of time and the accompanying psychologically safe space that one can be entertained by the Civil War.

It is only in the safety of peace that people can have fun with war. When a man plasters his pickup truck with bumper stickers reading, “Happiness Is a Northbound Yankee,” “I had rather be dead than a Yankee,”. . . . “Southern by the Grace of God,” he seems to be carrying out a kind of deep memorializing that keeps the war present in his mind and that of anyone who sees his truck. But in fact he’s having it both ways, since it is only because the war is so long gone and absent from most people’s awareness that he can afford to brandish these inflammatory slogans. He appears to urge remembrance, but he does so in terms that depends on forgetting. (p. 25)

One can reduce Cushman’s explanation to what all of us already know, that bumper-stickered vehicles are driven by shallow people. The bumper sticker indicates that the individual is not serious about the past or at least unwilling to move beyond a set of simplistic and emotionally-laden assumptions. This crowd is perhaps the clearest example of a more diffuse population that relishes in the entertainment side of Civil War remembrance. Here is how Cushman closes this chapter:

As for me, though I confess there are many moments when I can manage to forget the war and think about something truly amusing, the war itself is not a source of amusement. I’m not enthusiastic about chasing firefighters, and the word buff does not describe me. For one thing, I don’t feel as secure about the boundary between war and peace as I’d like to, for reasons I’m still trying to discover. In the meantime, what word does describe my condition and that of people like me however many or few we are? I’m not sure, but I think it might be the word “sufferer,” as in the phrase “allergy sufferer.” I think I must be a Civil War sufferer. How else can I explain the itchy throat and watery eyes when I pass the Wilderness sign?

So are you a Civil War buff?

Slavery and Reconciliation in Virginia

Most of you are no doubt aware of the recent debate here in Virginia over a proposal by the state legislature to issue some kind of apology for slavery.  The amended resolution calls for the legislature to “hereby acknowledge withcontrition the involuntary servitude and call for reconciliation among all Virginians.”  This simple acknowledgment raised the ire of Delegate Frank Hargrove (R-Hanover) who attacked the idea by suggesting that blacks “get over” slavery and went on in an attempt to draw an analogy by suggesting that perhaps the Jews should apologize for killing Christ.

To be honest I don’t know where I stand on this issue; it’s not clear to me what would be accomplished by issuing such a statement.  However, it is not uncommon for individuals, organizations or public institutions to acknowledge mistakes in order to foster reconciliation.  In the 1980′s the federal government apologized to Japanese Americans for their forced internment in 1942 following the attack at Pearl Harbor.  What I find interesting is the way individuals are responding to this proposal.  Here are a few examples:

King Salim Khalfani, head of the NAACP  in Virginia, commented, “You’re damned right they owe us an apology.  They need to repair the damage.”

Frank Earnest of the Virginia Chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans had this to say: “Not every black person in this country is a descendant of slaves. Not every
white person in this country is a descendant of people who owned slaves.”

A comment from another blog: “Should Southerners ‘apologize’ for slavery? Only if everyone else including the
Africans who sold black slaves to whites, the New England mariners who ran the
‘Triangle Trade’ (molasses to rum to slaves), the governments – including that
of the United States – which permitted the trade and everyone else who was
complicit in the matter ALSO apologize. But since no one who actually WAS
involved in slavery (at least the particular type of slavery under discussion)
still lives, it is pointless to demand that the descendents of only ONE aspect
of the institution ‘apologize’ for all of those involved in the entire system.”

An apology for slavery would also help, but “the government’s not gonna do it,”
said black city resident John Alexander as he paused near a statue of
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. “The average white person feels they don’t owe
us nothing.”

While the four passages are evenly distributed between two white and two black individuals, they all have something in common and that is that they reduce this question of an apology down to the level of race.  The third passage does just this before making the strange assumption that unless everyone apologize no one need apologize.  The question on the table is not whether whites should apologize to blacks or whether blacks deserve an apology from whites.  The issue is whether in 2007 the state of Virginia should acknowledge its role in the history of slavery as it existed within its borders.  The resolution – as I understand it – does not ask anyone to take responsibility for slavery and it does not ask that any one individual or group feel guilty for what happened in the past.  It is a resolution, which if approved, would be issued by a bi-racial institution in acknowledgment of a past that it played an important role in.  It was the colonial government in Williamsburg that passed laws between 1680-1720 that grounded the institution of slavery into its economic and social structure; later it was the state government in Richmond which debated and almost abolished its “peculiar institution” in the 1830′s and later during the first few years of the twentieth-century passed its first Jim Crow laws – an extension of slavery.

There is nothing wrong with having a debate about this issue, but let’s get over this childish insecurity that masks some important questions that could be addressed.

Black History Month

Most of you know that February is Black History Month.  My school is organizing a couple of activities to acknowlege the event.  We’ve set up a book discussion group that includes both teachers and students as well as a few outside speakers who will talk with small groups of students about various topics.  In addition, students and teachers have been asked to share their thoughts about issues that connect with black history during our school meetings.  I’ve been asked to get things started by sharing a few thoughts about the idea of Black History Month.  Feel free to comment.

I was asked to say a few words about Black History Month which will be observed through the month of February.  The setting aside of a month in recognition of the contributions of black Americans started in 1926  as "Negro History Week" under the direction of Dr. Carter G. Woodson.  I have to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable talking about black history.  As a historian I like to think of myself as someone interested in American history and more specifically the stories that reflect what all of us value about the history of this country.  We admire the people in our past who overcome great obstacles or defy the odds and those that stand firm for the values of freedom and equality.  The images that stand out in my own mind include black men fighting with George Washington’s army during the Revolution, the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner during the Civil War, the dignity of Frederick Douglass, the words of W.E.B. Dubois, the strength of King in a jail cell in Birmingham writing a justification for his civil disobedience on scraps of paper, and the courage of students your own age sitting defiantly at lunch counters across the South.  I find solace and hope in these and other images not because they are black, but because they reflect what makes this country what it is. 

At the same time I am all too aware that our historical memory is always selective and who determines that selection often depends on who controls the means through which our collective stories are shared.  When Negro History Week started little was known about the contributions of black Americans in large part because few people studied the subject, but more importantly because images of black Americans fighting in the American Revolution, Civil War, and even World War I did not fit into the history of a country that had decided by the 1920′s to legally segregate schools, buses, railroads, movie theaters and other public places along racial lines.  As a historian and as a citizen I consider myself lucky that I live at a time where I can read about those contributions as part of our American story.  Perhaps, as some have argued, a month set aside for black history is unnecessary.  I think the question is worth debating.  In the end, however, the recognition of Black History Month serves to remind us of our collective past and in turn hopefully strengthens our collective will as a nation to continue to push towards greater inclusiveness and equality for all.

Understanding Dimitri’s Civil War Sales Reports: Help!

I finally got around to reading Dimitri’s recent post on 2006 Civil War sales; unfortunately, I have to say that I don’t understand a word of it.  Most of the links are of absolutely useless to understanding specific claims.  I failed miserably in trying to navigate the Ingram site which is where Dimitri seems to have found the relevant slaes figures  What exactly does it mean to say that “the sales debut of ‘new thinking’ titles is soft”?  What books fall into this category?  Do they straddle popular as opposed to academic publishing houses?  According to Dimitri, “New Lincoln books were a washout,” including D. K. Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals which sold “especially poorly.”  I am willing to admit to not understanding the publishing world, but if I remember correctly this book was on the NYT’s bestseller list for weeks.  Is that fact not based somehow on sales?  We also learn that the “springtime” of Grant books has passed and that it will be a long time before we see another study from a major publishing house.  I am sure Dimitri was pleased to learn that McPherson’s Battle Cry “continues steady state with altogether insignificant sales variation year on year.”  He goes on to speculate that sales of the book can be explained in large part by their use in college courses.  William C. Davis and Gary Gallagher should be happy to learn that their recent releases are “suffering normal sales decay rates on modest debuts across a wide number of titles.”  Savas Beatie, on the other hand, is doing just fine.

My biggest problem is that Dimitri’s “observations” seem to be based on some fact of the matter as to what counts as normal or positive sales figures.  Perhaps there is some kind of standard, but none is provided in this post.  Exactly what are these conclusions regarding specific titles and authors being compared with?  How exactly are sales measured and how does this translate into an analysis of “success”?I don’t know how to even begin to make sense of any of this.

Finally, isn’t it interesting that Dimitri’s “observations” fall into line with his sometimes irrational disdain for the authors mentioned.  Coincidence?

Moving The Museum of the Confederacy: Follow Up

A couple of readers have shared their thoughts on recent reports that officials at the MOC are considering a move to Lexington.  It’s impossible to infer anything from the comments of a few people, but I assume that there is a sizable population out there that would like to see the museum move out of Richmond.  Let me say that I agree with those people who argue that the city of Lexington would make an ideal home for the museum as it would enjoy easy access off of Rt. 81 and would compliment the other attractions in the area.  That is not the issue for me.

I believe that museums are not simply repositories of the past but serve the interests of the communities in which they are located.  Their overall responsibility is to preserve the past in a way that allows local communities and visitors to better understand the causal relationship between the present and the past.  In short, museums serve to provide a context in which those interested can better understand the way in which current debates often connect with issues or problems long gone.    There is no better example of this than the Civil War.  We are still dealing with its aftermath and unresolved problems on so many different levels and given its current expansion Richmond is an ideal place to come to terms with the history of the South and the changes that it has gone through over the past few decades.  Those changes have raised issues that link to its Civil War past including the display of the Confederate flag and the numerous challenges to the make-up of its public spaces.

The MOC has a vital role to play in providing the space to discuss these and other issues in a meaningful way.  It can do this by sharing a sophisticated history of the South and the Confederacy in a place that has been and will continue to be engaged in an emotional debate over the memory of the war and the tough issues of race.  And as I pointed out the other day the fact that the museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause interpretation is absolutely essential to bringing interested parties together.  In my review of the new Civil War museum at Tredegar I mentioned how impressed I was with the structure of the exhibit, including the final section which explored the various legacies of the war.  It’s as wonderful space in which I can easily imagine being used in a number of ways to educate the local community.  The MOC needs that kind of space.

Everyone is aware of the declining number of visitors to the museum in recent years, but few people have commented on the number of African-American visitors.  I don’t have any numbers available, but I would guess (and I suspect that this is true for most Civil War sites) that few black Americans visit in large part because they don’t identify with the issues.  How is it that an event that not only ended slavery, but also involved the recruitment of roughly 200,000 black Americans into the Union army does not figure into the collective memory of this nation’s African-American population?  Well, those of you who read this blog know the answer to that question.  Moving the museum to Lexington will make it more difficult to address the tough questions of the Civil War.  It will also place the museum in a location that caters more to those who are tied to heroic images of Lee and Jackson and other Lost Cause themes.

Museums help those in local communities and beyond make sense of time and space.  One of the comments to the last post mentioned that “Richmond has grown, by leaps and bounds, into a very ugly and inaccessible city.”  We can debate the specifics of this reader’s assessment, but I continue to believe that the MOC can help us to better understand this change in all of its forms.