Confederate Flag Looms Large

Every so often I browse news items related to memory and the Civil War and although I have commented on issues related to the public display of the Confederate flag I have said little of late.  It’s like beating a dead horse given that the discussions are never interesting and tend toward an overly simplistic and dichotomous back and forth.  On one side we learn that the flag must be understood as a symbol of “heritage and not hate” and the other side would have us believe that it is a symbol of hate.  [Consider the recent debate at Fort Hill High School in Cumberland, Maryland.]  Like other Civil War memes such as North v. South, agrarian v. industry, backward v. progressive these discussions convey very little if anything that has historical value.  Here is another example of the whitewashing of history from an Arkansas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who recently celebrated Confederate Flag and Heritage Day:

Mark Kalkbrenner, 2nd Lt. Commander, said “The Confederate battle flag was a flag, an American flag the men were fighting for, what they believed in and it was the symbol they rallied around and we continue to use that.”

Such a claim completely ignores the ways in which that flag was displayed during the Civil Rights Movement and asks us not to remember history but to ignore it in favor of a narrow perspective that serves the interests of a small group.  I do not mean to pick on one side since those on the other also ignore legitimate interpretations that resonated with individuals that may not have had anything directly to do with race during the immediate postwar years and the war itself.  My point is that if you are one to take part in these debates understand that your stance one way or the other is more about you and not about the overall history of that flag.  Each side chooses to ignore some salient aspect of the past and in doing so you leave the realm of history.

This is a perfect opportunity to plug what I consider to be one of the most important Civil War publications of the last 5 years,  John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006).  I have little doubt that the people who make these overly emotional appeals for their preferred interpretation have never read John’s book, but their failure to do so probably means that they do not really understand their subject.  The book is now in paperback so do yourself a favor and read it.


Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Vhs_3Today I was honored to accept an invitation to join the editorial advisory board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography which is published by the Virginia Historical Society.  I’ve been a subscriber and member since 2004; this is by far my favorite publication and one that I actually read more than just the book reviews.  I was lucky enough to have one of my own articles on William Mahone published in 2005 and even won an award for it.  Since then I’ve written a couple of book reviews and reviewed two manuscripts for the journal. 

If you love Virginia history like I do than consider a membership which includes four issues of the journal.  The VHS is one of this state’s finest institutions. 


The Lost Cause in Lucca, Italy

Dscn1433[Compliments of Aaron Sheehan-Dean]
This photograph was taken in Lucca, Italy and provides the perfect follow-up to Sunday’s post.  The ads in the window feature
Italians posing as the cast.


Did Jesus Support the Confederacy?

I continue to receive these idiotic emails from something called Dixie Broadcasting, which is apparently an extension of Dixie Outfitters.  I’ve asked to be taken off their list, but thus far they’ve refused.  The latest email included a list of suggested readings which draws a very close connection between Christianity and the political goals of the Confederacy, high-ranking Confederate commanders, as well as the common soldier.  Of course, I am not suggesting that religion was not important to white southerners, but if we were to go on popular perceptions of the Civil War alone one must conclude that Jesus did indeed hold a cabinet position in Jeff Davis’s government.  Memory is sometimes very funny.

Update: One of my readers posted a critical comment that I would like to briefly address.  First, I did not post the image with the idea of alienating my readers the day after Easter.  As I indicated in the comments section I received the email this morning and decided to respond.  The reader believes the image to be offensive and I am sensitive to that but at the same time I am curious as to why.  After all, Christian themes, and the image of Jesus specifically, are all too common in contemporary images of the Lost Cause.  Is the problem that I am the one posting the image to make a point or could the problem be that Jesus has been photoshoped into Davis’s cabinet?  Perhaps the problem is the assumption that the individual who photoshoped this had nefarious intentions.  That said, I decided to delete the image rather than have people think that I am taking cheap shots at Christianity which I have no intention of doing.  Click here if you are interested in viewing the image and scroll down to the second frame.

Instead, I give you my favorite Mort Kunstler print.


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.