“Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?”

What does it say about an organization that structures a conference around a mutually exclusive choice?  This is a perfect conference for those of you who like your history overly simplistic and based around a strawman argument:

But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valour and leadership were surpassed only by his honour and humanity? Or, as some suggest today, was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee the man, his views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

Am I to believe that it is possible to have an analytical discussion about these issues?  Given the list of speakers is this really going to be a serious discussion with panelists taking different positions or are they simply going to sit around and toast the general with their words?  At least they were smart enough to invite Bob Krick  and Kent M. Brown who are the only two on the list qualified to talk about Lee’s generalship.  I think I will pass on this one and spend some time Saturday reading a history of Lee.   


I’ll Tell You When Enough is Enough

Eric Wittenberg has an interesting post up in which he raises the issue of when a historian has collected sufficient research material for a given project.  While I sympathize with Eric and others in reference to this question I don’t believe the problem is as bad as he makes it out to be.  And the reason, as Eric points out, is that you can’t collect all of the relevant information.  Perhaps most of what is out there is still lying in shoe boxes in people’s attics.  Fortunately, you don’t have to collect all of it.  The piece of the puzzle that I wish Eric had discussed in more detail is the importance of analysis in historical interpretation.  It’s the analysis that needs to drive the project based on the materials collected.  There is always the concern that the analytical aspects of the interpretation are supported by insufficient materials; in the worst case scenario the historian simply begins with a set of assumptions and collects data that supports those assumptions  However, as long as the historian remains open to revision there is room for the interpretation to grow and hopefully become more sophisticated.  The relevant question is whether data that has the potential to significantly alter the analysis has not been uncovered. 

I am quite confident that there is plenty of material on the Crater that I missed in the course of my research.  There are no doubt some pretty colorful accounts of Confederates sharing their perceptions of having to fight black soldiers that would enliven my narrative.  That said, I am pretty confident that there is little out there that would significantly alter the main analytical points that I make in the manuscript.  I decided awhile back that I was not going to try to cram as many voices into the project just for the sake of inclusion.  My published work hopefully balances data and interpretation effectively. 

In the end there is no answer to the question of when enough is enough.  The philosopher Raymond Martin once likened the process to a "Brewmasters’ Nose."  You stir the pot around for a bit and if you do it long enough and fail at it a number of times you eventually "know" when it’s ready. 

So, my advice to Eric (whatever it’s worth) is to think about the main interpretive points that have been made and whether a sufficient range of materials have been collected which support those points. 

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Congratulations to Peter Carmichael

While on my daily run today I met up with a fellow historian who mentioned that Peter Carmichael has just been named the Eberly Distinguished Professorship in Civil War Studies at West Virginia University.  As many of you know Peter is currently Director of Graduate Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He has published widely, including a biography of William Pegram and more recently, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion.  In addition he has edited a nice collection of essays on Robert E. Lee

Over the past few years Peter has been kind enough to comment on my own work and has been instrumental in pointing out a number of publishing opportunities.  Not only is WVU getting a top-notch scholar, they are also bringing on board a great guy.

Congratulations Pete!

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Bringing the Civil War to the Classroom

I received a letter from a fellow teacher today and thought that given that a fairly large number of k-12 teachers read this blog I would respond in a way that might benefit all those interested:

I am teaching a class next year called “The Civil War and Reconstruction.” It is a semester class. We are the only school in my district, and maybe the state, to offer the class. I am searching for an appropriate text with supporting materials to use. The students will be college bound 11th and 12th graders. Any ideas would be appreciated. I will use Furgurson’s book as supplemental. (Freedom Rising) Any books I buy have to come out of my pocket since there is no budget. I am also looking for a good primary source packet. I would appreciate any ideas to help me get this class going. I have taught U.S. History survey courses for almost twenty years.

First, let me say that it is always nice to see teachers introducing the Civil War on the high school level.  The material literally teaches itself and you are likely to inculcate a love for history through the material.  There is an abundance of materials and much of it is worthless so it is important to be able to judge for quality.  As far as a textbook is concerned I tend to use titles that serve as supplements for other documents.  I assign pages for students to read as background and rarely as their primary reading.  You want to find something that is short, concise, and written by a competent scholar who understands historiography.  The best book I can recommend is Brooks Simpson’s America’s Civil War (Harlan Davidson, 1996).  It is 217 pages long, relatively inexpensive, and does an excellent job of balancing the relevant military, political, social, and economic factors.  I’ve also used This Terrible War: The Civil War and It’s Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland but it is too expensive and a bit more difficult to use in the type of class that I teach. 

There are a number of decent primary source texts that should be considered.  I’ve used with some success the volume from the Major Problems Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin.  It includes some very good primary sources as well as excerpts from various secondary sources.  Of course you can find pretty much anything online if you know where to go.  Check out some of the links on the left hand side of the blog as a place to start. 

I’ve taught my Civil War course as both a readings class and as a research seminar.  In the case of the former my textbook supplements articles and chapters from various secondary sources.  One of the best sources is North and South Magazine which I’ve used with great success.  The articles are authored by some of the top scholars who understand the complexity of the subject and are able to convey these issues to a wide audience.  Back in 2005 I published an article on how I use this source in the OAH’s Magazine of History.  I want my students to understand that the Civil War is incredibly complex, and the best way that I’ve found to introduce students to this is by using the work of professional historians.  My classes are structured as seminars where students take turns leading the discussion and focusing the class on thesis evaluation.  In addition to printed material I’ve used segments from Ken Burns to illustrate interpretive points through film as well as music.  Last semester I used Ken Burns and a chapter in a recent edited collection to highlight the way we perceive Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army.

I have also organized the class as a research seminar where students spend the semester researching various topics from the Valley of the Shadow.  Students are introduced to every aspect of the research process from the formulating of questions to learning how to properly document sources.  Throughout the semester students are required to update the class on their progress and share both ideas and source material.  Fortunately, I have a mobile laptop lab with 16 computers, but you could conceivably use a computer lab on campus if available. 


So Simple Even My Students Understand It

[An attempt to connect some ideas that are currently floating around in my head into one coherent post.]

Today I took a small group of students up to Chancellorsville.  We spent about 4 hours driving to different locations and had lunch on the battlefield.  Our stops included the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the spot where Lee and Jackson met for the final time.  We followed Jackson’s flank march and ended up back at the Visitor’s Center where we followed Jackson’s reconnaissance and fatal shots.  Following lunch we drove over to Hazel Grove where I discussed the action on May 3.  The Park Service has done quite a bit since the last time I visited the battlefield.  The trees around Fairview have been cut, which provides an excellent view from Hazel Grove and makes it very easy to interpret the ground along with its significance to the fighting.  At the Chancellor House I noticed two new markers by the remnants of the foundation.  One focuses on the Chancellor slaves and the other on the Chancellor women who were forced to take refuge in their basement for much of the battle.  I mentioned that the two markers reflected an attempt on the part of the Park Service to broaden their interpretations of the military to include issues of race, slavery, and civilian life.  At one point I mentioned that this was a divisive debate and that many believe that the Park Service should stick to coverage of the movement of troops and other issues strictly related to battles and campaigns.  As we walked back to the bus one of my students inquired why this was so controversial.  If I remember correctly the student said: "Isn’t it true that civilians and slaves were often caught up in the confusion of battle?"  Leave it to a student to reduce an emotionally-charged debate down to the essentials.

Speaking of civilians I’ve read a few reviews of "Sherman’s March" and am not surprised to find that there are people who will continue to take issue with the "destructiveness" of his campaign and the image of the Union army as engaged in plunder and rape.  I don’t mind that people still find a reason to get emotional about it all, but I refuse to consider it as having anything to do with history.  As I toured the battlefield today I thought a bit about our tendency to understand Georgia’s civilian population as a white civilian population.  Apparently, Georgia’s blacks do not count in many peoples attempts to understand Sherman’s movements.  The two groups experienced that march very differently, which must be acknowledged by historians in writing about the campaign.  This acknowledgment is not a moral judgment, but the result of a responsibility to tell as complete a story as possible.  What I find so fascinating is the tendency of many to identify with people who lived during the Civil War.  Yes, there are people who have ancestors who fought on both sides, but even here I wonder whether such a close identification is useful in and of itself as a means to greater understanding.  I say this as someone who has no personal connection to the war nor as someone who was raised on stories of the war or groomed on battlefields during my formative years.  I didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.   

What I mean to say is that I have absolutely no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side.  I am pleased that slavery ended as a result of the war, but I have no interest in any moral identification with the men on the battlefield or with the civilian leaders in Richmond and Washington, D.C.  As a historian my primary interest is in better understanding why events transpired from as many perspectives as possible.  I am not psychologically wedded to any assumptions about the relative goodness of Southerners vs. Northerners, but I am fascinated by people who do.  You can see it in people’s expressions when they leave the realm of history to another place that is more about their own personally constructed ideas about what happened and what it means that it happened.  While I admit to finding the language and tone worth dissection it is not from the perspective of a historian, but as someone who is interested in the ways we become emotionally invested in our ideas of the past. 

Sherman’s march brings this out in a visceral kind of way.  Most people find a need to reduce his decisions down to an overly simplistic condemnation as if Sherman was the first and last general to bring war to civilians.  Interestingly we tend not to have these types of discussions when it comes to the bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII.  The Civil War was not WWII but the kind of war fought was similar if not much more severe.  Allied planes bombed many cities into rubble which collapsed any neat/traditional distinction between military and civilian targets.  The latter, one could argue, were targeted to bring about military ends.  Within this broader context Sherman’s campaign was mild at best.  His army destroyed infrastructure and lived off the land to survive and this served to drain the will to continue to fight from many on the home front.   Please don’t write  me to share the personal hardship stories of ancestors or to try to convince me of some vague "moral monster" label that you believe ought to be applied to Sherman.  I am not interested.  I have nothing at stake in the way I perceive Sherman as a moral being.  I don’t get goose bumps from certain images or from my own self-perceptions of the general.  Again, I am interested in historical questions surrounding the campaign.  How can the campaign be understood as a logical extension of Union war policy?  Did it succeed?  How did Sherman and his men relate to the civilian population – both black and white?

To those of you who have watched "Sherman’s March on the History Channel I would ask you to think about any strong reactions you may have.  Are your reactions the result of careful review of recent published works, including biographies of Sherman as well as studies of the campaign?  Or is it an extension of deep-seated feelings that have more to do with the luck of family and geography than with a genuine interest in the past?