Sherman’s March on the History Channel

The History Channel sent me a promotional copy of the upcoming feature "Sherman’s March" which will air on April 22.  I had a chance to view it and plan to write up a review to be posted on the 22nd.  I assume that I was not the only blogger contacted.  If you were in fact contacted and plan to write a review perhaps we can plan to post at the same time, build in the necessary links and get a discussion going — sort of an online roundtable.  Feel free to respond to this post or contact me through my private email.

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Are You a Pro-Union Scholar?

James I. Robertson is one of the most visible and respected of our Civil War historians.  I’ve read all of his books, and his biography of “Stonewall” Jackson is rightly considered a major accomplishment in the field of biography.  That said, I still find his participation in and continued support of the movie Gods and Generals to be somewhat amusing  Here is an interview with Robertson from Planet Blacksburg, which included a response that caught my attention since I have no idea what point he was trying to make:

Q: Are there a lot of scholars that are very Pro-Union or Pro-Confederate?

Robertson:
The majority are Pro-Union.  The overwhelming majority [of scholars] are Pro-Union, yes.  We southerners are in the minority.

Very strange response indeed.

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Teaching Lincoln

With the end of the school year not too far off it’s time to think about electives for next year.  I’ve already decided to offer my Women’s History class next spring; that should give you an idea of just how much I am enjoying this class.  For the fall term I’ve decided to offer a class specifically on Abraham Lincoln.  I have yet to write up a detailed course description and I don’t even know what to call the class.  Perhaps “Lincoln’s America” or Lincoln’s Civil War” will work.  I foresee a fairly straightforward class that explores both Lincoln’s personal life as well as the war years, and if there is time I will introduce the class to issues related to Lincoln and memory.

As far as books are concerned I’ve decided to use the late William Gienapp’s short biography, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America (Oxford University Press, 2002) along with the companion volume of primary sources.  The biography is right around 200 pages which will make it easy to bridge off from to examine other sources and work on various projects.  The companion volume of letter, speeches, etc. is compiled from Roy Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.  I also wanted to order one book of essays on Lincoln, but am having some difficulty narrowing it down.  Right now Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces Of An American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2001) is the front runner.  The essays cover a wide swath.  The essays include Douglas Wilson on Lincoln’s early life, David H. Donald on Lincoln and Davis as commander in chief as well as Allen Guelzo on Lincoln and the Constitution.  Finally, there is a wonderful collection of artistic interpretations of Lincoln by Boritt and Harold Holzer.  Feel free to offer any other suggestions that you think might work well.

I plan to write up something fairly substantial about the course in light of the upcoming Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations.  I am already working on a lesson plan that looks at how the Ken Burns documentary interprets Lincoln’s life.  Who knows, maybe I will take the class on a pilgrimage to Springfield, Illinois.

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A Book We All Should Read

My copy of Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (Knopf) arrived today.  I’ve mentioned Manning’s scholarship on a number of occasions.   It was a great pleasure for me to be able to join her for a panel discussion about Civil War soldiers at the most recent AHA meeting.  I’ve read a great deal of her work over the past two years and have used Manning’s North and South Magazine articles in my Civil War class.

This book should receive a great deal of attention as it focuses on an important topic and has been released by a popular publisher.  Manning explores the way soldiers on both sides of the Potomac understood the issues of slavery and race over the course of the Civil War.  This is a touchy issue for many Civil War enthusiasts and for Americans generally.  We’re not very comfortable talking about these issues and tend to steer clear at all costs.  All too often these discussions, including specific questions and answers are framed in ways that reflect more about how we would like to understand Civil War soldiers rather than the soldiers themselves.  For instance, in an attempt to distance slavery/race from the world of the Confederate soldier we mention how few actually owned slaves – as if ownership were somehow a sufficient reason to ignore the ways in which non-slaveholders may have understood and responded to the “peculiar institution.”  On the other hand, we prefer to distance Union soldiers from the same issue by asserting blanket statements about the primacy of preserving the Union over emancipation.  In both cases there is little willingness to explore the complexity of the topic or the ways in which the war transformed the men on both sides in relationship to these issues.  In contrast to this overly simplistic stance on what is perhaps the central issue of the war and American history we have no problem appreciating the voracious appetites of those people who leave no stone unturned in tracing the excruciating minutiae of a Civil War battlefield.

Manning’s book is steeped in archival sources.  There are literally hundreds of individual soldier collections, and Manning kept “data sheets” on 477 Confederate soldiers as well as 657 Union soldiers.  In addition, Manning utilizes for the first time over 100 regimental newspapers.  What Manning has given us is arguably the most complete study of how Confederate and Union soldiers understood slavery/race throughout the war.

If we listen to what soldiers had to say as they fought the Civil War, the men in the ranks do not allow us to duck the uncomfortable issue of human slavery, but rather take us right to the heart of it.  They force us to look at it unflinchingly, and what is more, to see it a as a national, not simply southern, issue that defined a war and shaped a nation. (p. 18)

As you might imagine I will have much more to say as I make my through this book.  In the mean time go out and buy this important book.

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Is It a Rising or Setting Sun?

LeeLet’s face it Confederate Heritage Month isn’t what it used to be.  In years past the month was identified with the remembrance of all things Confederate, but this year that acknowledgment is being clouded and even challenged on a number of fronts.  This is of course nothing new for people who have followed the cultural/political trends throughout the South since the 1970s.  The demographic shifts have been quite profound and our state and local political bodies reflect groups whose pasts do not necessarily conform or reduce to a vision that celebrates white Southerners as understood during the four years of the Confederacy. 

These shifts can be seen in the number of legislatures that have issued statements that express apologies or regrets surrounding a state’s involvement in introducing or perpetuating the institution of slavery and its Jim Crow descendant.  Virginia has already done so along with Maryland while North Carolina is currently debating a similar bill.  Over the past few weeks legislatures in Texas, Georgia, and even in the U.S. House of Representatives have either introduced bills or begun the discussion. 

In the case of North Carolina and Georgia the debate over a slavery apology has accompanied one that would involve a formal declaration of April as Confederate Heritage and History Month.  Here we find the clearest indication of the profound changes taking place throughout the South.  Can anyone imagine the possibility of this type of compromise just 20-30 years ago?  For some the situation is even more dire.  Recently the mayor of New Castle, Indiana repealed a proclamation naming April Confederate Heritage Month just three days after authorizing it.

No doubt smaller counties throughout the country will have little difficulty authorizing proclamations, but the days of state proclamations may be drawing to a close.  I’ve said before that there is nothing surprising about these changes.  In fact, the very changes that we are witnessing today stem from the same dynamics that brought about the emphasis on a white Confederate past by the turn of the twentieth century and throughout much of the century to follow.  Our state legislatures now reflect a wider range of their constituencies.

Is it any surprise that a past constructed by white Americans designed to reinforce a racial hierarchy would therefore be challenged and revised? 

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