A Few Additional Thoughts About Robert Krick, Lee, and Historians

Last night I caught Bob Krick’s SCV talk "Lee and Historians in the Age of the Anti-Hero" on CSPAN.  I blogged about this talk a few weeks back, but only had a newspaper article to work with.  Viewing the talk in its entirety, however, did not add much to my previous observations. 

I actually enjoyed listening to Krick.  He’s got a great sense of humor and is clearly a well-read individual beyond the confines of Civil War history.  He started off on just the right note, by commenting on the ways in which memory often comes to distort the past.  In the context of memory of the Civil War Krick outlined the general view made popular by David Blight and others, which highlights the impact that reconciliation and reunion had on popular perceptions of the war.  He referenced this view as a point of departure in noting that not all postwar observations were distortions or exaggerations. 

Krick’s central observation is that historian’s claims that Lee’s reputation was constructed during the postwar era are reflective of a general trend of conspiracy theories and "anti-Confederate" writings.  Now if there ever was a strawman argument this is it.  Before proceeding I should note that Krick frames the issue correctly: the question is not whether one ought to view Lee as an icon, but whether people at the time did.  Krick quotes from three texts to make this point, including Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan, and Michael Fellman.  Only three historians are referenced in the entire talk, which doesn’t make for much of a historiographical analysis.  At one point he suggests that these writers are mainly academics, but of course, Nolan is an attorney.  Later in the talk he quotes approvingly from Charles Roland’s short text on Lee and he is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Kentucky so clearly not all academics are problematic on his view.  On the other hand, Krick’s criticisms of Fellman’s study of Lee focus not on his central question but on the author’s use of psychological categories such as "manic depression."  While I agree that psycho-history can be misused it is not clear to me that Fellman is anti-Lee or anti-anything.  He may be wrong about his claims, but Krick has little interest in critiquing those claims.  Vague generalizations and mischievous minds seem to be the order of the day.

The problem as I see it for Krick is that while his conspiratorial claims about recent Lee literature barely include anything constructive his preferred approach to history is one that many historians have come to appreciate.  Krick believes that the way to approach Lee is by looking at the way he was perceived at the time and not after the war.  He quotes from E. Porter Alexander and a civilian who I am believe is Catherine Edmundson.   Here Krick is on solid ground and on target as an implicit response to Nolan and Connelly.  The problem here is that Krick doesn’t cite one historian writing today who has adopted such an approach and there are many.  He presents himself as a lone cavalier out to save the reputations of the great Confederate chieftain.  To drive the point home Krick asserts that only Lee has been the victim of such attacks while Lincoln and Grant have been largely untouched.  This last point is patently absurd as anyone who follows Lincoln historiography knows.  In fact, if ever there was a "historian" whose conclusions followed from an agenda and little understanding of how to conduct research about Lincoln it is none other than Thomas DiLorenzo who was one of the panelists at this conference.

Krick is right about one thing that is there is a great deal of bad Civil War history out there.  However, basing one’s observations on bookss published 15 to 30 years ago does not help us understand more recent historiographical trends in the field. I understand that Krick’s next book on weather in Virginia during the Civil War is due out soon with the University of Alabama Press.  No one has a better grasp of Confederate military sources, so as always, I look forward to his next book.


Ron Maxwell’s Financial Troubles Continue

Looks like Ron Maxwell is still having trouble settling accounts with Washington County, Maryland where much of the "commercial flop" Gods and Generals was filmed

Washington County officials say they are considering suing "Gods and Generals" director Ronald F. Maxwell to force repayment of $300,000 the county lent him for work on another Civil War film that wasn’t made.

Maxwell has fallen about $56,000 behind on loan payments, The (Hagerstown) Herald-Mail reported Friday. County Attorney John Martirano said that unless Maxwell responds soon, the county might file a lawsuit to recover the money.

What will the Civil War enthusiasts do without another installment (The Last Full Measure) of overweight reenactors, sappy scriptwriting, unrealistic battle scenes, and Lost Cause nonsense?  Click here for an earlier post on Maxwell’s financial problems and here for one of his incoherent rants about immigration.

On a similar note, Dimitri reports that Gingrich and Forstchen are getting out of the Civil War fiction business and moving ahead to WWI.  No more silly movies or books from these three.  Good news all around.


“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”: Lee on Race and Emancipation

My research into Confederate reactions to the presence of USCTs at the Crater leaves little doubt that one of their primary fears was that defeat would lead to the overturning of a slave society.  From their perspective this outcome had nothing at all to do with slave ownership and had everything to do with losing control of a society where the institution of slavery guaranteed the continued separation of the races along with its well-entrenched hierarchy.  The archival record is very clear on this and Chandra Manning’s new book on Civil War soldiers and slavery confirms it. 

While the discussion of race and slavery within the ranks has been given new life in recent historical studies, Robert E. Lee’s own racial outlook continues to suffer at the hands of people who draw overly simplistic distinctions or who fail to place Lee within the proper social-economic context.  Luckily we have Lee himself who makes it very clear in a letter to Secretary of War James A. Seddon on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The letter was written on January 10, 1863:

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leave us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.

While the letters written by soldiers in the ANV who experienced the fight at the Crater were understandably much more emotional, Lee’s letter touches on the main themes.  Battlefield defeat for Lee meant nothing less than an overturning of the Southern racial hierarchy, and one can assume that his reference to "pollution" has something to do with miscegenation or at least a fear of more liberal rules governing the interaction of the races. 

The acknowledgment of such a racial outlook does nothing to my personal view of Lee since I am not invested in any specific moral image.  He is a figure from the past who held views about slavery and race which corresponded to widely held assumptions. 

Nothing surprising about that.


A Short Rant About AP/College Board

The year is coming to an end and my AP students are set to take their exam on Friday.  Most of them are just a bit anxious about the test.  I am ambivalent about all of it.  On the one hand I want them to do well, but at the same time it seems ludicrous to spend an entire year in preparation for one test.  I can talk and talk about various ways to asses individual progress, but in the end for most kids this test speaks volumes.  This increased tension about the AP test only adds to my growing frustration with College Board and the AP program in history.  Here is how College Board introduces the AP program on its website:

AP can change your life. Through college-level AP courses, you enter a universe of knowledge that might otherwise remain unexplored in high school; through AP Exams, you have the opportunity to earn credit or advanced standing at most of the nation’s colleges and universities.

This is my third year teaching the course and with every year I am more and more convinced that this is essentially a flawed curriculum.  Actually, there is no curriculum at all beyond an assessment of basic knowledge (much of it irrelevant) and critical writing skills, which a halfway decent teacher would be introducing anyway.  I end up giving up a wide range of lessons for a basic survey of American history from soup to nuts.  We have little time to explore any area in much detail.  It’s the kind of class that probably alienates more students from the study of history than it attracts. 

This year College Board is making all AP teachers submit curriculum materials for some type of accreditation.  It will no doubt take time and make for a depressing start to my summer vacation.  College Board is a private company and students pay $82 for each exam.  The idea that I have to submit materials for accreditation is absurd.  On a grading scale of 1 to 5 my students average a 4.2.   Yes, I’ve only taught the class for three years running, but my scores speak for themselves.  I am seriously considering sending in 6th grade level material to see what these boneheads do.  Do I really have to worry about not being accredited given the amount of money that students from this school spend on the AP program? 

I like to think of myself as a creative teacher.  I routinely take chances in the classroom with the goal of serious historical understanding as the ultimate target.  My AP classes always lag behind in this regard because I always have to worry about covering the required material.  Fewer and fewer colleges are giving AP credit and I am now counseling more and more of my good students to stay away from the AP course.  It’s one thing if they really want the AP credit, but if they have any interest in history I tell them to take my regular survey course. 

Oh I hope someone from College Board is reading this. 


Grabbing Hold Of That Thin Slice of Delaware’s Confederate Past

Looks like the first monument to honor Delawareans who served in Confederate armies will be unveiled this Saturday on the grounds of the Nutter B. Marvel Museum.  The 9-foot obelisk will honor somewhere between 200 and 2,000 residents of the state who served in military and civilian capacities.  Of course, one of the individuals to be recognized is a black man:

David White, a slave from Georgetown who was traveling with his owner on a ship that was captured by the Confederate raider CSS Alabama on Oct. 9, 1862, near the Azores. According to historical accounts, White voluntarily served as a mess steward aboard the Alabama and refused numerous opportunities to desert and gain his freedom.   White went down with the ship when it was sunk by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864 off Kearsarge, France.

White was loyal to the end and even went down with the ship.  How touching.  What more can you ask for? (LOL)

It’s interesting that the SCV would spend so much time focusing on Delaware’s links to the Confederacy.  There is a bit of irony in all of this given the fact that, according to historian William Freehling, it may have been Border States like Delaware that doomed the Confederate experiment.  Delaware’s antebellum experience meant that the rhetoric coming from Deep South “Fireaters” would receive a cold reception before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  It also helps us to understand why the secession commissioners that Charles Dew documents were unsuccessful in convincing the Border and Middle South States that Lincoln’s election constituted an “immediate threat” to the institution of slavery.  That Delaware ignored these pleas can be seen in the fact that from 1790 to 1860 the percentage of slaves in the Border South had dropped from 25 to 13 percent.  During that same period the percentage of free blacks had increased; by 1860 ninety percent of the state’s blacks were free.

The antebellum history of Delaware serves to remind us that the South was not monolithic in any sense.  The overwhelming number of its residents served in Northern armies and fought against their Southern brothers.  I have absolutely no problem with this monument, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is more a matter of ignoring the richness that is the history of the South in favor of another overly simplistic representation of the past.