A Message To The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star: JUST SAY NO

I know that newspapers operating in the heart of Civil War country feature articles and letters to the editor to attract readers, but there is no reason to print the kind of drivel that has appeared in the last few weeks in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  Now that I think of it a series of articles on secession back in November 2005 was the subject of one of my earliest posts.  The subject of recent weeks has been Robert E. Lee.  Here is a small sample of letters to the editor for your enjoyment.

From 10/12/06: Returning home from a church meeting, Lee sat at the supper table and was about to say grace. The general could not say a word and slumped down in his chair. It is believed that he had a stroke.  It has been written that Lee’s grief for the Southern people, some of whom were made poor by the War Between the States, may have contributed to his failing health.

From 10/16/06: While Lee was an undeniably talented military leader and an honorable man by the standards of his time, no amount of mythology and hero worship can obscure the fact that Robert E. Lee led the armed struggle to keep black people in bondage.

From 10/23/06:The seceding states were not seeking to overthrow the federal government, but were reclaiming the rights they had voluntarily granted to the federal government.  Gen. Lee certainly respected that and the 10th Amendment.  Sad to say, President Lincoln sent federal troops into Maryland’s state capital in order to prevent Maryland’s right to decide for or against secession.  Lincoln also deployed "terrorism" in order to cripple the South, through William Sherman’s leadership.  Significant enough, criminals were released to join Union ranks and would have been among the "terrorists."  And yet Lincoln, unconstitutionally, established tribunals for "Northerners" who sympathized with the seceding states.  Gen. Lee surely understood the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government, whereas President Lincoln disregarded the Constitution.  The founders gave us a constitutional republic, not a constitutional monarchy.

From 10/24/06: I know of no one with the slightest knowledge of history who would agree with such nonsense. To suggest that Lee did not do his duty is beyond ridiculous.  Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest Virginians and Americans who ever lived.   As a loving father (read "Lee’s Daughters"), devoted husband and son (one need only read surviving letters), educator, nation’s healer, and one of the finest military generals of all time, Robert E. Lee stands as one of the greatest men in history. He was truly a hero.  I’ve taught my children and my students about his character and dedication. We should all strive to emulate those qualities.  Robert E. Lee essentially gave up every material possession to defend his family and native state.  He was opposed to secession and slavery, but he could not aid a foreign country that was illegally invading Virginia.

Who needs Douglas S. Freeman, Emory Thomas, Thomas Connelly, Gary Gallagher, Michael Fellman, and Richard McClaslin when you have the good readers of the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  Is this what Carl Becker had in mind when he used the phrase, "Everyman His Own Historian"?

Civil War Fathers

Today my Civil War class discussed an article by James Marten on fathers and their attempts to maintain a meaningful connection with their families, especially their children.  The article is titled, "Let Me Edge Into Your Bright Fire," which appeared in North and South magazine back in September 1997.  The article provides an overview of his much larger work titled, The Children’s Civil War (1998).  In years past my classes have really enjoyed this article; in fact one year we saved our discussion for our lunch break during our tour of the Chancellorsville battlefield.  This year, for some reason, they were less enthusiastic.  One student commented that the analysis was not surprising and wondered why the story needed to be told.  We focused on the thesis to gain some clarity as to Marten’s research agenda:

Confederate and Union fathers mourned the loss of daily contact with their sons and daughters the way they would mourn the loss of a limb in combat.  But, as their correspondence with their families so touchingly reveals, they refused to give up their paternal roles.  Their letters home reveal a side of Civil War soldiers unexplored in most accounts of their lives: their love for their children, their determination to remain important figures in their children’s lives, their startlingly "modern" approach to childrearing.  These were not the distant Victorian fathers that we so often read about, but men deeply engaged in the raising of their sons and daughters.  Civil War soldiers fought to remain fathers in deed as well as in name and filled their letters with affection and advice. This was a vital part of their self-images and one cannot fully understand the men who the blue and gray unless one realizes how important their families were to them.

We discussed the crucial historiographical point that historians have ignored this aspect of soldier’s lives in favor of themes that connect more directly with the battlefield; most of the students understood that Marten’s analysis filled in a crucial gap, but still, they were not impressed with his examples.  One of the students shared that the various ways that soldiers kept in touch or tried to remain part of their children’s lives was predictable. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but then I realized that they are looking at this topic at a time when the family backgrounds of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is front page news.  The major news outlets have focused on these types of human interest stories since the beginning of the war.  Our local news regularly runs stories about how families on the home front maintain contact with their loved ones overseas.    The sadness of long-term separation and the horrors of some of their wounds has been exploited much too often, but unfortunately that’s what keeps people tuned in.  In short, my students see soldiers as family members and it was an eye-opening realization for me.

Flags of our [White] Fathers?

We’ve come a long way since the stupefied looks on people’s faces as they walked out of the movie theater back in 1989 asking: "Did black people really fight in the Civil War?"  Now we look to see if movies are racially inclusive.  Looks like Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the battle of Iwo Jima is receiving some flack for failing to include black actors that reflect their presence during the battle.   

Nearly a thousand African-Americans took part in the battle and hundreds more played vital support roles. Yet in the sprawling two-hour plus film, no black combatant is seen. This continues the insulting and infuriating pattern in books, films, and TV movies in which the monumental contributions that black men and women made to the fighting in the Pacific and Europe have downplayed, ignored, or deliberately whitewashed.

The invisibility of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, and indeed, the legions of other bio-pic movies on World War II is no surprise to the many black vets that know the true story of the war. They have taken every opportunity they’ve gotten to protest the sanitizing.

Are critics being too sensitive?  I think not.  My students are still shocked to learn that black men fought with George Washington during the Revolution and that significant numbers fought in the Civil War and World War I.  Why exactly are they surprised?

Eliza Frances Andrews Remembers The Crater – Well Sort Of

I’ve been reading the wartime journal Eliza Frances Andrews, (b. 1840) titled The war-time journal of a Georgia girl, 1864-1865 (1908).  Most of it concentrates on events in Georgia, specifically Sherman’s “March” but in the preface Andrews provides a wonderful overview of how white Southerners – and by this time much of the rest of the country – had come to view the war.  In doing so she references the Crater.

The diary was written in a time of storm and tempest, of bitter hatreds and fierce animosities, and its pages are so saturated with the spirit of the time, that to attempt to banish it would be like giving the play of Hamlet without the title-role. It does not pretend to give the calm reflections of a philosopher looking back dispassionately upon the storms of his youth, but the passionate utterances of stormy youth itself. It is in no sense a history, but a mere series of crude pen-sketches, faulty, inaccurate, and out of perspective, it may be, but still a true picture of things as the writer saw them. It makes no claim to impartiality; on the contrary, the author frankly admits that it is violently and often absurdly partisan – and it could not well have been otherwise under the circumstances. Coming from a heart ablaze with the passionate resentment of a people smarting under the humiliation of defeat, it was inevitable that along with the just indignation at wrongs which ought never to have been committed, there should have crept in many intemperate and indiscriminate denunciations of acts which the writer did not understand, to say nothing of sophomorical vaporings calculated now only to excite a smile. Such expressions, however, are not to be taken seriously at the present day, but are rather to be regarded as a sort of fossil curiosities that have the same value in throwing light on the psychology of the period to which they belong as the relics preserved in our geological museums have in illustrating the physical life of the past. Revolutions never take place when people are cool-headed or in a serene frame of mind, and it would be as dishonest as it is foolish to deny that such bitternesses ever existed. The better way is to cast them behind us and thank the powers of the universe that they exist no longer.

I cannot better express this feeling than in the words of an old Confederate soldier at Petersburg, Va., where he had gone with a number of his comrades who had been attending the great reunion at Richmond, to visit the scene of their last struggles under “Marse Robert.” They were standing looking down into the Crater, that awful pit of death, lined now with daisies and buttercups, and fragrant with the breath of spring. Tall pines, whose lusty young roots had fed on the hearts of dead men, were waving softly overhead, and nature everywhere had covered up the scars of war with the mantle of smiling peace. I paused, too, to watch them, and we all stood there awed into silence, till at last an old battle-scarred hero from one of the wiregrass counties way down in Georgia, suddenly raised his hands to heaven, and said in a voice that trembled with emotion: “Thar’s three hundred dead Yankees buried here under our feet. I helped to put ‘em thar, but so help me God, I hope the like ‘ll never be done in this country again. Slavery’s gone and the war’s over now, thank God for both! We are all brothers once more, and I can feel for them layin’ down thar just the same as fur our own.”

That is the sentiment of the new South and of the few of us who survive from the old. We look back with loving memory upon our past, as we look upon the grave of the beloved dead whom we mourn but would not recall. We glorify the men and the memories of those days and would have the coming generations draw inspiration from them.

Andrews is referring to the well-attended 1903 Crater reenactment which was held in Petersburg and on the actual battlefield.  I have no reason to believe that Andrews was not in attendance that day, but the event was widely covered by all the major newspapers so she would have had every opportunity to read stories such as the one outlined above.   What is so striking to me is the tension that persist between the acknowledgment of her strong emotions during the war and the way she prefers to remember the war later in life.  One could challenge the implicit assumption that “cool headed” necessarily implies some form of objectivity as opposed to her “sophomorical vaporings.” [I am going to try to use that phrase today at some point.] While her memory of the war in 1908 is not being fueled by the same passions of youth and harsh realities of war it is clear that the references to reunion and the hope that “coming generation draw inspiration” from the men on both sides were influenced by factors equally salient.

Where To Study The Civil War In Graduate School

I recently received an email from someone who stumbled onto my blog while looking for places to study the Civil War in graduate school.  Here is the email:

I stumbled on your blog while doing some of my research on grad schools.  Since you seem to have your ear to the ground regarding Civil War academia, I was wondering if you know which grad schools have the best reputations for study of Civil War, have the best Civil War scholars, etc.  I’ve already assembled a list of some of the schools, based in part from input I’ve received from guys like Gallagher, Robertson, and Davis, but I’d appreciate any information you might have. Thanks for your time.

Since I don’t really "have my ear to the ground" on this one I thought it might be worthwhile to appeal to some of my readers for help, especially those of you who teach the Civil War on the college level.  still, I might take a crack at this one.  First, I would think of the Civil War broadly and look at departments that have a strong concentration in Nineteenth-Century and/or Southern History.  Obviously, the University of Virginia would be an ideal place to go given that Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Michael Holt, Julian Bond, and Grace Hale all teach in the department.  In addition, there is the Center For Digital History and the Carter G. Woodson InstituteRice University has a strong concentration in Southern History, including John Boles who edits the Journal Of Southern History.  If I were going to graduate school I would seriously consider the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Joe Glatthar, Jacquelyn D. Hall and Fitz Brundage cover a wide range of issues that connect to the Civil War.  The University of North Carolina at Greensboro now has a Ph.D program in United States History and there is a strong concentration in the Nineteenth-Century, including Charles Bolton, Peter Carmichael, and Loren Schweninger among others.  Penn State University has Carol Reardon, Mark Neely and William Blair on its faculty along with the George and Anne Richards Civil War Center.  Finally, Ohio State University includes both Mark Grimsley and Joan Cashin.  There is also a strong concentration in African-American history.

That’s just a few that I could think of off the top of my head.  Perhaps Emory University, Arizona State University, University of Georgia as well as Harvard University should be considered.  Anyone else want to offer their advice?