Where Do We Go From Here?

In my comments at the AHA I made some brief remarks in my talk and during the Q&A about possible avenues for future research in connection with Civil War veterans and memory.  I thought I might take a minute and extend those thoughts to this sub-field as a whole.  Others have commented that the topic of Civil War memory is a passing fad, but a quick glance at the range of topics and types of questions that have been explored in recent years suggests that the field will continue to expand, especially with the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011.

Surprisingly, given the number of recent studies there are big gaps in the literature that are just waiting to be explored.  One of the most popular subjects for historians, including yours truly, has been the exploration of how battles and the ground on which they were fought were remembered and commemorated. We have excellent studies of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox; however, we still need interpretations of “Sherman’s March,” Andersonville and even the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimac.  Military figures such as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have proven to be popular subjects for study, but that short list could easily be expanded. First, the list tends to be dominated by white southerners which I suspect has much to do with the popularity of the Lost Cause. Donald Collins recently released a very short study of Jefferson Davis and memory; unfortunately that book is really a missed opportunity as the author failed to fully explore the subject.  Benjamin Butler would make for an ideal subject as well as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman’s postwar military career contribute to the way we remember him?  Joan Waugh is currently working on a book that explores how Grant was remembered and his place in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century civic culture.  The book is slated for publication with UNC Press.

Very little has been done on the Copperheads apart from Jennifer Weber’s fine study.  We need to know much more about northern dissidents and how their wartime political stance was handled locally following the war.  How did their memories of the war conflict with and evolve as the nation mourned Lincoln’s assassination, expanded economically, and became even more centralized? On the other side of the Potomac John Sarris’s study of northwest Georgia suggests that much more needs to be done on southern dissidents.  I mentioned in my AHA comments that community or local studies provide an ideal focus for the examination of memory.  Historians have begun to examine counties and regions, but little has been done on cities such as Charleston, New

York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.  My guess is that the urbanization of many cities and the influx of new ethnic groups presented some interesting challenges that became intertwined with Civil War remembrance and civic memory.  I suspect that these local perspectives are going to shed light on a great deal of disagreement over how the war was to be remembered.  The National Park Service would also make for an ideal study, which is absolutely essential given the recent controversy about how the park service should interpret our Civil War battlefields.  My work on the Crater clearly demonstrates that the park service inherited a specific interpretation of the battle that was tightly controlled by white southerners and the veterans themselves.  The park service gained control of the battlefield in 1936 and accepted without question an interpretation that ignored the participation of USCT’s and their treatment following the battle by Confederates.  I cite this as one example, but I suspect that much more could be done as battlefields at Chickamauga  and Antietam were turned into National Military Parks.  One of the most common rebuttals against the expansion of the NPS’s interpretive focus is that it should not be in the business of interpretation.  An examination of the Crater battlefield demonstrates that the NPS was involved in interpretation from the beginning – and a rather narrow interpretation at that.

Feel free to offer additional suggestions.

Placing A Stone On A Grave

I am currently reading through Mark H. Dunkelman’s new book, War’s Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers (LSU Press, 2006).  In many ways this is a companion volume to his fine regimental study, Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment (LSU Press, 2004) which focused on the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry.  Dunkelman’s regimental history is one of the best examples of what we can be done when the right questions are asked; the author examines both the political and social dynamics of the unit as well as the way it functioned as an extension of the home front.  Even better, Dunkelman extends his history of the unit into the postwar years.  As I mentioned in my post the other day, unfortunately, this aspect is often overlooked in unit histories.  While the rigors of battle and camp life were no longer functioning as the glue that tied the men together the veterans remained active in organizations, reunions, reenactments, and crafting their preferred history of their service in the army.

Dunkelman’s most recent study is difficult to categorize.  The book includes 12 sketches of men who served in the 154th New York.  The particular individuals were chosen based on the uniqueness of their story.  As the men served in the same unit they shared a broad range of experiences; however, Dunkelman manages to locate stories which remind us that each soldier experienced the war in their own way.  One of the most interesting stories involves Private Milton H. Bush who managed to find a substitute only to discover in 1864 that his name had never been taken off the muster rolls.  Bush was forced to join the army in 1864 and while his paper work requesting a discharge based on the obvious mistake that had been made was working its way through the military’s bureaucracy his unit was ordered to Georgia.  While fighting in Georgia Bush was stricken with a bowel disorder and was sent to Nashville for convalescing where he died.  The paperwork that granted Bush his discharge came through two months after his death.

To be honest I was a little wary of this book.  It does not have the analytical rigor of his regimental study, which is somewhat surprising for an academic press book.  It will be interesting to see if reviewers harp on that alone.  I say that because if they do dwell on that alone they would have missed something that I am still trying to put my finger on.  Books on the common soldier are nothing new and the number and sophistication continues to increase with each passing year.  That said, there is something attractive about a stripped down study of average soldiers without the analytical framework.  Each chapter begins with a trip to a cemetery which the author narrates.  At first I found it to be distracting but then I was reminded of a common practice in the Jewish tradition, which involves placing a stone on the grave being visited.  It is both a sign of respect and a sign that someone was present.  In a way Dunkelman’s book functions along similar lines.  Each soldier’s name serves as the chapter title and no more than 25 pages are set aside for each individual.  And when you get down to it they probably don’t deserve much more.  However, that is not really the point, what matters is that they are acknowledged.  In the end the individuals emerge for just a short time and while they make an impression they soon fade away.

The Year Of Lee

Most of you are no doubt aware that 2007 is the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth.  There will be a great deal of celebration and perhaps even a little history to go along with it.  A reader was kind enough to draw my attention to the Virginia Senate Joint Resolution No. 382 which among other things established a "joint subcommittee to plan and coordinate the 200th anniversary celebration of the birth of Robert E. Lee. Report."  The following section lays out who will serve on the committee:

RESOLVED by the Senate, the House of Delegates concurring, That a joint subcommittee be established to plan and coordinate the 200th anniversary celebration of the birth of Robert E. Lee. For this occasion, the joint subcommittee is hereby designated the official Robert E. Lee Memorial Commission of the Commonwealth. The joint subcommittee shall have a total membership of 14 members that shall consist of six legislative members, five nonlegislative citizen members, and three ex officio members. Members shall be appointed as follows: two members of the Senate to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules; four members of the House of Delegates to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates in accordance with the principles of proportional representation contained in the Rules of the House of Delegates; two nonlegislative citizen members, one of whom shall represent the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one of whom shall represent the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules; and three nonlegislative citizen members, one of whom shall represent the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, one of whom shall represent the Confederate Memorial Literacy Society, and one of whom shall represent Washington and Lee University to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates. The Director of the Department of Historic Resources, the Executive Director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction shall serve as ex officio members without voting privileges. Nonlegislative citizen members of the joint subcommittee shall be citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Unless otherwise approved in writing by the chairman of the joint subcommittee and the respective Clerk, nonlegislative citizen members shall only be reimbursed for travel originating and ending within the Commonwealth of Virginia for the purpose of attending meetings. If a companion joint resolution of the other chamber is agreed to, written authorization of both Clerks shall be required. The joint subcommittee shall elect a chairman and vice chairman from among its membership, who shall be members of the General Assembly.

Additional "technical support" will be provided by the Department of Historical Resources, Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Department of Education.  Someone please point out to me where the hell are the historians.  Notice there is no one from the Museum of the Confederacy, Library of Virginia, National Park Service or the Virginia Historical Society. 

With this make-up we can anticipate numerous lecture series like the one set for April which is being sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute.  The title of the event is "Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?"  With a title like that you can expect some heavy-duty historical thinking. Here is a description provided on their website:

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or 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’s 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.

I love the attention to character evaluation in the form of mutually exclusive choices: Was he this or that?  I have to hand it to them, the conference organizers apparently chose just the right people to discuss this topic.  They include among other Ron Maxwell and Thomas DiLorenzo.  If anyone actually attends this event please let me know if they ever get around to talking about history.

Library of Virginia Examines Virginia History and Myth

The Library of Virginia is off to a fast start in its examination of 400 years of Virginia history.  The next few weeks will include a number of very interesting exhibits and talks.  Its exhibit "Myth and Memory: Exploring 400 Years of Virginia History" opens on January 8 and runs to December 2007. 

Myth & Memory will explore how Virginians remember and shape their history. Anchored by the 1907 and 1957 Jamestown expositions, the exhibition will examine other commemorative events, including the centennial and bicentennial of Yorktown, Emancipation celebrations, Confederate reunions, and local centennial events. Myth & Memory will suggest what history is and explain how public memory reflects our knowledge and life experiences.

I may drive down on Friday to take a look and if I do expect a full report.  The Commonwealth of Virginia has an incredibly rich history and as I’ve learned over the past few years much of that history takes the shape of myth.  For someone interested in the intersection of history and myth there is no better place to live and research. 

Report From The AHA

As promised here is my report from this years AHA meeting in Atlanta.  This is my second time attending the AHA and probably my last unless asked to participate in another panel.   [You can read a detailed overview of the AHA over at History News Network, including the arrest of historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto for jaywalking between hotels.] I am not a big fan of academic conferences, but it does give me a chance to interact with some very talented people, see friends, and make new contacts.  As a high school teacher I don’t often get the opportunity to converse with people who share similar research interests.  My wife and I set out on Thursday at around 6:30am on what turned out to be a 9-hour drive.  I guess we could have taken a 1-hour flight, but driving gives you the option of eating the artery-clogging food of Cracker Barrel every 24.5 miles.  If the conventional car ever became too boring we could have stopped off at one of the 10 Harley-Davidson superstores along Rt. 85.  Can you picture us arriving at the Hilton with me on a Harley and my wife in one of those side carriages?

I attended some very interesting panels on a range of issues.  On Friday I listened to papers on African-American celebrations of Emancipation Day and Juneteenth.  One of the papers analyzed the 1936 Texas Centennial Fair and its inclusion of a “Hall of Negro History,” which I didn’t know anything about.  Other panels looked at railroads in the nineteenth century and another focused on digital history projects.  The latter was a roundtable-style discussion which left plenty of time for questions.  We discussed questions about how digital history projects function as historical interpretations and how they should be assessed as such.  The roundtable format is far more preferable to the standard 2 to 3 paper panel.  It is simply too difficult to maintain the level of focus necessary to follow even a fairly sophisticated arguments – not to mention that the sessions normally run for 2 hours.

The best part of the conference is the exhibition hall which includes just about every academic publisher.  You can purchase soon-to-be-released books and other titles at discounted prices.  I picked up a number of titles from LSU, Oxford, and University of Virginia Press.  It was nice to see that the University of Kentucky Press stand had copies of The View From The Ground and I was even more pleased to learn that the book is actually selling.  At this point I can announce that  Kentucky Press is evaluating my Crater manuscript for possible inclusion in their New Directions In Southern History Series.  The manuscript was mailed today and I should get the reviews at some point in March/April – at least that’s what the editor tells me.  There is no guarantee that they will accept it for publication, but there is the possibility that if everything goes relatively smooth there will be books available about this time next year.  The exhibition hall is where a lot of the action takes place.  Representatives are available to discuss book projects and shop ideas.  I had a chance to talk with a representative from the academic press that is likely to publish my edited project on John C. Winsmith.  The room is truly overwhelming and for someone who loves to look at quality books there is no better place than the AHA to do your shopping.  It’s actually overwhelming.

As I mentioned above one of the nice things about conferences is that it gives you a chance to catch up with friends.  Here is a photograph of me (on the left) with my friend Tom Ward.  Tom and I taught together at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science and now teaches American history at Rockhurst University.  He is the author of Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South, which was published in 2003 by the University of Arkansas Press.  The book is well written and focuses on the steps taken by black Americans to become doctors and the difficulties they faced in a Jim Crow society.  I also met some new friends, specifically a few of the bloggers over at Cliopatria.  We met for lunch on Friday afternoon and Ralph Luker (founder of Cliopatria) was kind enough to pick up the tab.  It was nice having the opportunity to put a face on some of my favorite bloggers, including Rob MacDougall, Rebecca Goetz, Jonathan Dresner, and Tim Burke.  To my surprise we talked very little about blogging.  It was a great lunch and the conversation was entertaining.

I attended a very lively panel on Saturday morning which was supposed to include Howard Zinn; however, he was not able to attend due to health reasons.  The session was sponsored by Historians Against the War and focused on Staunghton Lynd’s experiences as a radical historian teaching at Yale University in the 1960′s.  Though Zinn was not in attendance Jesse Lemisch presented an entertaining paper that took a number of pop shots against Bush and the Yale culture.  While it was entertaining it was not the most informative session.  The whole atmosphere had a very different feel to it.  It was as if a sub-culture of the AHA had converged into one room.

I spent the early part of the afternoon making some final changes to my short talk.  The session went very well.  We had a nice turnout and the roundtable format proved to be the best route.  There were six of us total and each of us took five minutes to talk about our work as it relates to researching Civil War soldiers.  It was a real pleasure taking part in a panel that included such distinguished and talented scholars.  [The photograph to the left is of the panel and includes from left to right: Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Jason Phillips, Chandra Manning, Charles Brooks, Kent Dollar and me.] We identified somewhere between eight and ten possible dissertation topics that could be written.  One thing is crystal clear to me and that is that there is no crisis in Civil War studies.  Some of the most talented people are working in the field and even with all we’ve learned in the last few decades it is safe to conclude that it will continue.  Keep an eye out for Aaron’s study of the Confederate family in Virginia with UNC Press.  Jason Philips is revising a study on Confederate defeat with Univ. of Georgia Press; check out his recent article “The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence” in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Southern History.  Chandra Manning’s study of Civil War soldiers is set for release from Knopf in March.  I had a chance to browse the page proofs and it looks to be a first-rate study.  Charles is hard at work on a study that looks at Civil War soldiers in connection with Constitutionalism, and Kent recently published Soldiers of the Cross: Confederate Christians and the Impact of War of War on Their Faith with Mercer University Press.  Following the talk I had a chance to talk with Lesley Gordon who had some nice things to say about my comments.  I commented that unit histories are ideal places to explore conflict amongst veterans during the postwar period since most of the men tended to live in the same places.  Unfortunately most unit histories are written by people who have little interest in these questions.  In my talk I discussed the political debates between veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade during the Readjuster period.  Lesley is currently completing a study of the 16th Connecticut and will incude an entire chapter on their postwar experiences.  I look forward to her study which will be published by UNC Press.

All in all I had a great time at the conference.  This year I am scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable in February, Rappahannock Valley CWRT in March, and the Richmond CWRT in July.