Presentation on the Crater and Memory

This coming Tuesday I will be presenting a talk to the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable.  The talk is scheduled for 7:30pm at the JAG School on the campus of the University of Virginia.  Directions can be found here and the meetings are free and open to the public.  I am going to talk about the broad outlines of my Crater project and concentrate on William Mahone and the evolution of memory surrounding U.S.C.T.’s.  Over the past few days I’ve scanned a number of interesting documents and images that will be used throughout the talk.  One of them is a photograph of Private Louis Martin who served in the 29th Illinois (U.S.C.T.) and who lost both an arm and a leg at the Crater.   

This is going to be a fairly open ended presentation as I hope to engage the audience from the beginning.  I’ve attended way too many talks where the speaker simply reads a paper or reads notes from a screen.  The idea behind the Roundtable format is to engage in a discussion with your audience.   

Not too long ago I bid farewell to Roundtables, but with my manuscript under review I thought it might be time to drum up a little enthusiasm for the project.  I think it can be argued that I was a bit unfair in that earlier post.  The burden is on me to make the narrow subject of Civil War memory relevant to an audience that is perhaps not predisposed to this type of discussion.  And I guess it is possible not to get too worked up about the inevitable question about black Confederates.  I am also scheduled to speak about the Crater on July 10 at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable.  And on March 12 I will be speaking about Confederate military executions at the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Roundtable in Fredericksburg.  Between these three talks there is a good chance that I may meet some readers of this blog.

Black Teachers in the Segregated South

I just picked up the new book by Adam Fairclough titled A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South (Harvard University Press, 2007).  I’ve only read through part of the introduction, but I am already hooked.  We tend to generalize about the conditions and challenged faced by black Southerners during segregation.  No surprise that when you get down into the history a much richer and more complex story emerges.  One of the most significant distinctions that needs to be made is that between non-professional and professional.  In the case of the latter, Tom Ward’s Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South explores the unique challenges faced by black doctors in medical schools, hospitals, and various professional associations.

Fairclough examines black teachers from Reconstruction through to the 1970′s.  I first became interested in black teachers after reading about the Readjuster movement here in Virginia which led to a dramatic increase in the number of black students and black teachers.  Apart from this aspect of Virginia history and the steps taken during Reconstruction to improve education in the South this is a subject that I know little about.  What hooked me in the introduction was a brief comment that Fairclough made in reference to the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  As many of you know part of the argument hinged on the assumption that separate schools based on race encouraged feelings of inferiority among black students.  The author suggests – and I assume will elaborate in detail in the book – that this claim is false.  After reading that sentence I immediately thought that I had misread it.  Whenever I teach the case I take it for granted that the psychological assesment was true and have never questioned it.  Fairclough argues that while the physical conditions of the schools were inferior black teachers succeeded in teaching their students self-respect.  The question of whether any psychological data was relevant to the merits of the case continues to be debated by legal scholars.  Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argues that Brown has been misunderstood by the courts.  This passage is from Missouri v. Jenkins (1995):

Brown I did not say that “racially isolated” schools were inherently inferior; the harm that it identified was tied purely to de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. Indeed, Brown I itself did not need to rely upon any psychological or social-science research in order to announce the simple, yet fundamental truth that the Government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race…
Segregation was not unconstitutional because it might have caused psychological feelings of inferiority. Public school systems that separated blacks and provided them with superior educational resources making blacks “feel” superior to whites sent to lesser schools – would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether or not the white students felt stigmatized, just as do school systems in which the positions of the races are reversed. Psychological injury or benefit is irrelevant…
Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. (…) Because of their “distinctive histories and traditions,” black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.

I tend to agree with much of what Thomas says here.  At around the time of the Brown ruling Stanley Elkins’s view of slavery as on par with WWII Concentration Camps was being debated.  To determine the effects of bondage upon the slaves themselves, Elkins compared them to Holocaust survivors and drew upon studies of mass psychology in the concentration camps, arguing that the brutality of slavery was much like that experienced by victims of the Nazis. He asserted that the horrors of the Middle Passage stripped slaves of any previous cultural values or expectations, allowing masters to completely rebuild slave’s personalities in a manner that suited them.  This dependent role made it difficult to understand the ways in which individual slaves understood and constructed a sense of their own humanity and purpose.  The direction of slave historiography quickly evolved to a point where historians like Eugene Genovese were able to show how both slave and master engaged in a reciprocal relationship based in part on the implicit acknowledgment that slaves were not simply an item on a property list.

It’s interesting that in the case of slavery I have no problem conceiving of slaves as actively engaged in crafting an identity in the face of violence and other hardships associated with the “peculiar institution.”  I guess I am surprised that I was unable to do the same in the case of black schools.

This should be a very interesting read.

Another Case of Selective Memory: Virginia and Lincoln

The Virginia legislature tabled proposals to establish a state bicentennial commission to honor Lincoln’s 200th birthday.  Along with the national commission 10 states have established their own commissions to mark the event.  There are no surprises as to why Virginia is reluctant.  Just listen to the following:

A Richmond resident spoke against the commission, charging it represents
"historical myopia and amnesia at its worse" and "kowtowing to the leader of
Virginia’s enemies."

Robert Lamb, a lawyer and member of Sons of Confederate Veterans who said he
was speaking as an individual, said Lincoln as U.S. president during the Civil
War sent armies into Virginia who "laid waste to the land," among other
grievances.

I agree with Brian Dirck’s summary of the situation:

I think we all know what happened here; Virginia’s self-appointed keepers of the
Confederate flame flexed their political muscles, and triumphed in their ongoing
campaign to put a particular slant on the way Americans view the Civil War and
its legacy.

What is so disappointing is that their view of Virginia’s Civil War legacy is anything but historical.  The basic approach of those like Robert Lamb is to reduce the war to a simple distinction between us and them.  We are to believe that everyone in Virginia was pro-Confederate.  When Lamb speaks of "Virginia’s enemies" he is no doubt speaking for some white Virginians and fails to understand that tens of thousands of black Virginians held very different views during the war and after as they continued to celebrate Lincoln as a liberator.  Nelson Lankford’s excellent book, Richmond Burning details the celebrations that took place in the city’s streets as Lincoln entered in April 1865.  There are plenty of Virginians who have an interest in celebrating the memory and legacy of Lincoln. Unfortunately, those like Lamb can’t acknowledge this because in their view Virginia’s Civil War is the story of white Virginians.

If this is any indication of how Virginia’s legislature is going to handle problems of interpretation during the Civil War sesquicentennial than we are in serious trouble.

I Think, Therefore I Am A Thinking Blogger

Yesterday I learned that this blog was selected for a “Thinking Blogger Award” by J.L. Bell of Boston 1775.  The award started with Ilker Yoldas who designed the icon; he then handed it out to five bloggers whose work he believed provoked serious thinking  Those five bloggers in turn selected five more blogs and so on.  Bell’s short citation reads as follows:

Civil War Memory by Kevin M. Levin goes deep into our Civil War, not just the one fought in the U.S. of A. from 1861 to 1865 but also the one fought in our culture for the ensuing century and a half.

Well, that was a nice surprise.  Now it’s time to select my five bloggers.  While some of the other bloggers are setting up elaborate ground rules for consideration my only consideration is that the blog in question be thought provoking.  So, without further delay…

1. While the number of Civil War blogs continues to grow at a steady pace only a few actually make me think.  One of them is Brian Dirck’s A Lincoln Blog.  Abraham Lincoln is easily the most interesting individual from the Civil War and it’s nice to be able to get a daily dose of the “Railsplitter” from one of the most respected scholars in the field.

2. Brett Holman’s Air Minded focuses on British history between 1908 and 1941 and while that may seem like a fairly narrow focus he somehow manages to comment on much broader issues related to war, society, and technology.  The upshot is that I end up learning a great deal about a period in history that I know little about.

3. While I rarely agree with Hugo Schwyzer his blog is essential reading for anyone interested in thinking seriously about gender studies/feminism and religion.  His posts have helped a great deal this year as I work my way through my first semester teaching women’s history.

4. The blog called Spinning Clio is a must stop for those looking to explore the space where politics and history intersect.  No doubt there has been plenty to comment on over the past few years in that regard.  You can be guaranteed that the posts are well crafted and while they do betray a bias on the part of the blogger the views are always fair and tightly argued.  I love the “Reviewing the Reviewer” series; check out the latest installment critiquing a Woody Holton review.

5. My final choice is Hiram Hover who blogs about history, politics, and the academy.  My only problem is that Hiram doesn’t blog enough.  That said, he strikes me as someone who is crystal clear on where blogging fits into his intellectual life.  At one point not too long ago Hiram announced that he was going to reveal his real identity; unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet.  His posts betray a sharp wit and his commentary on Free Speech and the AHA always manages to attract the attention of Ralph Luker.  Hiram Hover is smart, witty, and fun so check it out.

And there you have it.  Congratulations to the winners!

Getting To Know Your Man

It was nice to hear Peter Carmichael in his Civil War Talk Radio interview mention Stephen Berry’s fine book, All That Makes A Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South
(Oxford University Press, 2003).  Pete mentioned that the book has unfortunately not received the kind of attention it deserves.  I have to concur with that assesment.  It just so happens that I’ve been going through parts of the book again in connection with one of my research projects.  The book fills an important gap in our understanding of the emotional lives of southern men on the eve of the Civil War.  There is a strong superficial interest in masculinity which can be seen in the goofy references to Southern chivalry or christian warriors.  It’s not that the concepts are meaningless, just that most of the people who reference them have little interest in getting below the surface of the topic.  The emotional and intellectual lives of Southern men, especially Jackson and Lee, were supposedly as transparent to themselves as they are to us.  With the help of gender and cultural studies we’ve made much progress in this area, but according to Stephen Berry:

For all these advances, however, the story of Southern masculinity continues to be understood better in its postures and poses, more for what it claimed to be than for what it was.  In their studies of duels and barbecues, hunting and stump speaking, scholars have examined with greater penetration the archetypically masculine aspects of Southern life than the dithering dreams and doubts that surely dominated men’s inner experiences of themselves.  Of the consequences for the South of its hypermasculinized culture, much has been suggested.  Of the consequences for the men living in and through this culture little is known.  Of the general tenor of men’s inner, emotional lives little has been said or written.  As a result, men are denied a measure of their humanity, which, while in no way so egregious as that denied women for centuries, is nevertheless an impediment to understanding. (p. 11)

All too often we talk about courage and other masculine qualities of the men who fought on the war’s bloodiest fields without ever wondering what these concepts meant to the men themselves.  More importantly, we pay little attention to how these ideas were learned, acted upon, and reinforced in the years leading up to the war – at a time when many of these men were coming of age.  It’s as if the common language we use to describe Southern men (especially the ever popular Lee, Jackson, and Stuart) fail to tell us anything that goes beyond the paintings and photographs.

What I mean to say is that you should read this book.