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.

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Back From Atlanta

I just got back from the AHA in Atlanta and had a wonderful time.  My session went extremely well.  I met some wonderful people and made some important connections.  Oh… and I bought a lot of books at great prices.  Congratulations to the boys at Civil Warriors for winning the Cliopatria Award for best group blog.  The winners were announced at the Cliopatria lunch banquet which I attended.  Full report along with photographs coming soon.

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Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans And Memory

I am posting this entry on Saturday at 2:30pm.  At this time I am sitting in a conference room in the Atlanta Hilton with five other panelists to discuss our work in the View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  The panel is titled “Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and includes Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Kent Dollar, Chandra Manning, Charles Brooks, Jason Phillips and myself.  Since this is a roundtable discussion each panelist is only given about 5 minutes.  This will allow for  plenty of time to engage the audience in discussion.  Here are my remarks.  Since I am posting this on Wednesday there is a good chance that changes will be made before Saturday.  Feel free to comment.

“Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans and Memory”
Presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association,
January 6, 2007

For the past four years I’ve been researching the battle of the Crater in historical memory – primarily the way white Southerners, including the veterans themselves, shaped the public’s understanding of this particular battle. As many of you know the battle took place on July 30, 1864 and involved an attempt on the part of the Army of the Potomac to tunnel under a Confederate salient in hopes of breaking the growing siege of Petersburg.  The Union attack – which included a division of USCT’s – failed miserably and constituted the last decisive victory for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before their surrender in April 1865.  This project started out as an essay on William Mahone – who led the Confederate counterattack at the Crater – and his attempt after the war to utilize his war record to benefit both his business and political careers.  I say this at the outset because my primary goal was not to study Civil War veterans as a group.

As the project moved beyond the narrow focus of Mahone and on to the battle itself the veterans emerged as an integral part of the story.  I had read David Blight’s Race and Reunion and was prepared for evidence of national reconciliation in connection with the Crater battlefield.  Through reunions and monument dedications both Confederate veterans from Virginia and their counterparts in the North used the battlefield as a forum to highlight the bravery exhibited by men on both sides.  And Union veterans  – particularly from Massachusetts – played an important role in working with their former enemies to bring the battlefield under the control of the National Park Service in 1936.  While it is important to acknowledge, as does John Neff in his recent study of the commemoration of Civil War dead, that national reunion and reconciliation was not a given the veterans achieved a great deal of consensus which continues to dominate the way the general public thinks about this particular battle.  The most significant point is the extent to which the role of USCT’s during the battle and their treatment by Confederates following their surrender had been eliminated from public memory by the turn of the century.

While the level of consensus achieved by Confederate veterans about the battle did not surprise me, the strong points of disagreement within their ranks did.  The literature on Confederate veterans beginning recently with Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson point to a gradual achievement of consensus structured around the tenets of the Lost Cause. A more local perspective reveals much more complexity.  I am going to briefly present two examples in connection to the Crater in which conflict amongst Confederate veterans shaped the memory of the battle.  The first is explored in my essay in The View From The Ground.  Veterans of Mahone’s division, including brigades from Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, along with other units from North and South Carolina debated through the turn of the century over who could claim credit for their victory.  Virginians succeeded in claiming the victory as their own by minimizing the contributions of units from outside the Commonwealth.  While their strong convictions about their roles in the battle point to continued feelings of Confederate nationalism their desire to claim the battle for themselves became intertwined with issues of honor rooted in local and state identity.  The tendency for veterans to focus on individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate and American.

More interesting is the fierce debate among veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade that took place as a result of the general’s foray into Virginia politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party.  I explore this in an article that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 2005.  The Readjuster Party controlled the Commonwealth from 1879 to 1883 and resulted in Mahone’s election to the United States Senate.  The Readjusters welcomed Virginia’s black population into the party and as a result enjoyed increased access to the polls and political power around the state.  The racial shake-up that resulted served to divide Mahone’s former command.  In short, Reconstruction came later for Virginians, compared with the rest of the South, not as a result of the federal government or “carpetbaggers” but at the hands of one of their own.

Newspapers reserved plenty of space for former soldiers who aligned themselves with or against their former commander, and they expressed themselves by either reinforcing or challenging Mahone’s reputation as the “Hero of the Crater.”  Mahone was compared with John Brown and Benedict Arnold and questions were raised about his performance at the Crater, including whether he gave the order to charge or whether he was even present on the battlefield.  One of Mahone’s most vociferous critics was Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the Crater.  Given Weisiger’s rank and close association with Mahone his claims to have ordered the attack at the Crater were given a great deal of attention.  The damage done to Mahone’s reputation can be seen in Weisiger’s obituary which appeared in the popular publication Confederate Veteran in 1893 and cited him as the “Hero of the Crater.”

Throughout the postwar period Mahone had taken steps to organize the men under his command tohelp in first consolidating his rail lines and later his political interests.  He did this by assisting in organizing a veteran’s organization that eventually took the generals name and by offering free passes on his rail lines to attend annual meetings.  The debates that involved Virginia’s veterans showed that these men were not simply pawns that could be manipulated but were active political agents in their own right.  The debates between veterans of the battle were not about getting the history right, but about the conditions surrounding who could claim a legitimate connection to a Confederate past.  At the height of Readjuster control history and politics became almost indistinguishable with Mahone himself serving as a lightning rod that divided his old command.  In August 1883, Robert Bagby – who served in the 3rdGeorgia Regiment of Mahone’s division appealed to his fellow comrades to look beyond politics:

It is not my wish or desire to applaud Gen. Mahone for the active part he bore in the late war between the States, or vilify or abuse him for his connection with Virginia state politics but as a Confederate soldier who followed where he led in the dark and trying hours of the past. I, for one, am willing to let politics of the living present rest long enough to remember the record made by Gen. Mahone while fighting for a principle that was near and dear to us all.

Mahone was the most divisive former Confederate general in Virginia following the war, much more so than James Longstreet.  After all, while Longstreet was criticized by popular Lost Cause advocates such as Jubal Early he continued to be welcomed at reunions and other events by the men of his old corps.  Mahone’s political decisions, however, worked to alienate the men under his command and it was these men who worked to end the party’s control of the state by 1883.

Both examples suggest the way the Confederate past could be made to serve the present needs of the men in the ranks and perhaps points in the direction of further research.  There is a great deal of consensus when we look down on Confederate remembrances.  We can see the broad outlines of the Lost Cause, which among other things explained away slavery as a cause of secession and celebrated the virtues of the Confederate soldier and turned the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into icons.  In doing so the Lost Cause presented its readers and later generations with a united front.

When we take the view from the ground, however, we are forced to come to terms with a great deal of conflict that outlasted the war, the fault lines and hidden controversies that often defined the peace.  In the case of the debates between Virginia veterans and their one-time comrades over who could claim credit for victory at the Crater the men identified more with their own states rather than a more abstract Confederate past.  Within Virginia itself the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade came to blows over the political decisions of their former commander.  In both cases the experiences of the Civil War continued to provide meaning on a local level to the way Confederate veterans identified with their changing surroundings in a post-emancipationist world.

So where do we go from here?  I am intrigued by the possibilities that community studies offer as an avenue for future study.  They provide the right level of focus as they are more likely to exploit local politics and other issues that are missed in broader studies.  Unfortunately most of these local studies give short thrift to postwar experiences or if they do steer clear of issues of memory.  An exception to this rule can be found in Jonathan Sarris’s A Separate Civil War, which compares Lumpkin and Fannin counties before, during and after the war – both situated in northwest Georgia.  The postwar experiences of Confederate veterans and Unionists neighbors in both counties and the sometimes bitter debates that took place are rendered intelligible through a careful analysis of the socio-economic patterns that shaped their pre-war and wartime experiences.  There are other possibilities for future research which we can talk about during the discussion session.

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All About A Quilt

I’ve been following with great interest Ralph Luker’s recent series of posts over at Cliopatria on the myth of slave quilts.  I am interested in this mainly because I don’t know anything about it.  Apparently there is a long-standing myth that slaves were guided north by following signs that were stitched into quilts.  This myth was accepted in 2005 by a graduate student and his advisor at UNLV who encouraged his student to pursue this story even after it was revealed that it could not be verified based on the available evidence.  The advisor posted a notice on H-Net for help in finding evidence:

The original quilts have by now disintegrated, and apparently there are very few
first hand accounts of how quilts were used in practice. What I’m looking for,
then, are references to quilt-use in popular literature. Do you know of any
novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc, from the antebellum period that in
some way mention quilts in association with the underground railroad or the
abolition movement in general?

In response historians such as David Blight explained why there is no evidence, buts still the thesis went forward.  Blight and Paul Finkelman offer additional comments on all of this at H-Net and according to the former the quilt story is going to be incorporated into a planned monument to Frederick Douglass to be placed in Washington, D.C.  That is very disappointing.

At one point Luker asks why we need to believe this nonsense even after it is shown that the story lacks credibility.  Fellow Cliopatria blogger Oscar Chamberlain offers his own response to this question.  I was particularly intrigued by one of his suggestions:

7. Unlike some fields, physics, for example, the lines between the professional
and the non-professional historians and the history they produce is extremely
blurry. There are fine—or at least accurate—people who do history outside of the
profession as well as some jokers. And there are many people on both sides of
the line who do good work much of the time but not all the time. And then there
is the well-produced muck. We often complain about this blurring when we discuss
what students learn (the student says,“I love the History Channel"), but we
rarely talk about what we learn, not always consciously, from popular sources
that don’t seem like muck.

I think Chamberlain’s point here is particularly appropriate for Civil War studies.  That "blurry" line is both a blessing and a challenge.

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Keith Olberman Commentary: Too Little Too Late

The blogosphere is heating up over Keith Olberman’s commentary last night about the proposed "surge" of troops planned for the new year and on the president’s repeated calls for "sacrifice."  The Daily Kos call it an "11 minute piece of brilliance."  I watched it this morning on the MSNBC website and thought it was on par with previous commentaries.  This was clearly meant as a direct attack against the president.  Overall I find most television news shows to be more about entertainment than about actual news.  While I agree with the substance of Olberman’s commentary it is too little, too late. 

First, I should say that I never supported the war in Iraq.  As someone who lost a relative on 9-11 I supported the president’s decision to go into Afghanistan 100%, and I thought he did a very good  job in the days and weeks following that horrific day as a rallying point for a grieving nation.  I was hoping that we would find and either capture or kill Osama bin Laden.  From day one I though that the talk of Iraq was a distraction from what was clearly a legitimate target.  I never believed that we would find WMD or that we could somehow bring democracy to Iraq.  And as most conservatives will tell you that shouldn’t be the goal of this nation’s foreign policy to begin with.  [See Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads]  What is so disturbing about the recent round of books on the lead up to the war and the occupation is that our intelligence community in fact did do their jobs.  There were plenty of doubts expressed by intelligence services re: WMD and what would happen in case of an extended occupation.  They were ignored.  I’ve been reading and highly recommend  Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Hubris and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

From day one the job in Iraq was botched, but the American people, including our elected officials didn’t question any of it.  [We couldn’t even execute Saddam Hussein properly.]  Worse than that we demonized those people as anti-American who did question the administration.  Even Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq was labeled a political opportunist and a disloyal American.  Large protests were seen as peripheral by most mainstream news agencies.  This is the sickening part of the entire story as far as I am concerned.  Even with this country’s recent history we allowed the situation to get out of control.  The president has asked the American people to sacrifice for this so-called "War on Terror"  from the beginning and yet I look around and struggle for the evidence of national sacrifice on the home front.  I suspect that the reason we never engaged in serious dialog about this war is because sacrifice was never really necessary.  Most of us have no direct connection to the men and women who are risking their lives or who have lost their lives in this senseless war. 

As bad as things are they will get worse unless the American people stand up and demand that it stop.  It was appropriate for Olberman to refer to Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address.  My only disagreement is that if these soldiers do die in vain it will not simply be on the hands of the president.  I fear that they already have died in vain.  Olberman’s commentary was flashy and emotional, but what does it matter if that is both the beginning and end of  the opposition to all of this nonsense.  The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Olberman’s anger should not have been directed at the president; it should be directed at the American people.  We allowed this to happen.  Our public officials in Washington are only accountable if we demand it.

In the end I have to conclude that we got what we deserve.

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