New Lee Painting Uncovered

Looks like the Museum of the Confederacy has uncovered a real artistic gem.  From the Richmond Times-Dispatch article:

A rare portrait of Robert E. Lee will be showcased at the Museum of the
Confederacy in January to celebrate the Confederate general’s 200th
birthday.  "If you look at all the books about Robert E. Lee, this painting is not in
them," said Waite Rawls, the museum’s president and CEO. "I think it’s that
mystery that is so intriguing. When was it painted and under what
circumstances?"

The owner of the painting, who does not want to be identified, purchased it
at an estate sale in Richmond in February. Since then, he’s been researching its
past, with help from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, libraries and the
Internet.  Still, questions remain.  "We don’t know if Lee sat for the painting or whether it was painted from a
photo," said the owner, a Henrico County resident who typically displays the art
in his living room.

Another mystery surrounds its age. It dates to at least 1868, when artist
Thomas B. Welch showed it in a juried exhibition in Paris.  "We don’t know where it’s been since then," the owner said. "It’s
frustrating. I want to know."  One thing he is sure about is his good fortune.  "I went to the estate sale, and there it was hanging over the fireplace," he
said. "I wasn’t going to pass it up."

The owner of the painting has allowed the MOC to make copies for sale ($300) in hopes that the proceeds will help its financial situation.  It might be worth purchasing as it is a limited printing and it will benefit the MOC.  Click here to see the image.

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Ervin Jordan Reviews Robinson’s Bitter Fruits of Bondage

Last week I chose Armstead Robinson’s posthumously published Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 as the best Confederate study of 2006.  Check out Ervin Jordan’s very thoughtful and insightful review of the book over at H-Net.  The two were friends and colleagues here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia.  Jordan is an archivist at UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections and specializes in the Civil War.

Armstead Louis Robinson (1947-1995) was a colleague, friend, and mentor; we discussed our respective books-in-progress on many occasions. As the
University of Virginia special collections’ research archivist and Civil War specialist, I am currently processing his papers (70,000 items) which include several groups of _Bitter Fruits of Bondage_ manuscripts and research material; these are not yet available to the public but once they are, his dedication to the historian’s craft will be deservedly appreciated. As a teacher, Black Studies advocate, Civil War historian, and founding director of the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, Robinson was widely respected among his peers. One monograph of African-American intellectuals included him among a pantheon of nearly two hundred exceptional minds including W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, and Cornel West. Colleagues familiar with Robinson’s academic career as a student and teacher maintain he was a genius born to be a historian; as a history undergraduate his maturating skills were acknowledged by mentors such as Eugene Genovese who quoted Robinson’s unpublished honors thesis in his peerless _Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made_ (1974).

Read more.

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Letting Go

Yesterday I spent some time browsing through my local bookstore as I still have a substantial amount of money left over from student Christmas gifts in the form of B&N gift cards.  I spent a few minutes reading Harry Smeltzer’s short article on Civil War blogs in America’s Civil War.  Harry did a super job introducing readers to the pros and cons of blogging and a few of the better blogs currently in operation.

What I found interesting was the reaction of the few historians who were asked their opinions about blogs.  Both were direct in their overall concerns that since practically anyone can blog the field as a whole lacks credibility or they simply can’t bother sifting through the morass.  That may be too harsh an assessment, but it’s at least on target.  [Note: See Smeltzer’s comment to this post below.]While I agree that there is a lot of nonsense out there I don’t buy this reaction.  Can’t you ask the same question and substitute Civil War histories for Civil War blogs?  Most of the former is crap written by people who have not business writing history at all.  However, we don’t throw our hands up in the air in frustration we sift through the literature and look for signs of legitimacy.

The bigger problem is that blogging is still relatively new and its place within academia is still questionable.  Many academics blog anonymously rather than risk being shunned by their peers or in the worst case being denied tenure.  Whatever the reaction on the surface I’ve found that roughly half of my readers are from the academic world.  I can’t be sure that they are historians (professors or students), but they are logging on from their school’s servers.  Like any new technology change takes time.  Perhaps the pace is just right as it lends itself to being able to think through some of the tougher questions surrounding methodology/pedagogy.  Whatever the case it seems to me that we are beyond the questions of to blog or not to blog or what do you think about blogs.  The question now is what can we accomplish through blogging.

If anyone has any doubts about the possibilities that blogging offers to academics just check out Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out Of The Stone Age.

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144th Anniversary Of Emancipation Proclamation

The most significant result of our Civil War was not that it gave us Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant or some battlefield to obsess over. 

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Sensing The Past

There is a very interesting post over at Boston 1775 on recent studies of the colonial experience and Revolution that focus on how people sensed their environments.  It’s a relatively new trend that although raises some interesting epistemological questions offers a unique perspective on some important historical questions.  I thought it might be useful to mention Mark M. Smith whose work is relevant to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and nineteenth-century America generally.  He is the author of three book, including Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South and Listening to Nineteenth-Century America.  His most recent book is titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  I’ve read the last two.  Here is the description from Listening:

Smith explores how northerners and southerners perceived the sounds associated
with antebellum developments including the market revolution, industrialization,
westward expansion, and abolitionism. In northern modernization, southern
slaveholders heard the noise of the mob, the din of industrialism, and threats
to what they considered their quiet, orderly way of life; in southern slavery,
northern abolitionists and capitalists heard the screams of enslaved labor, the
silence of oppression, and signals of premodernity that threatened their vision
of the American future. Sectional consciousness was profoundly influenced by the
sounds people attributed to their regions. And as sectionalism hardened into
fierce antagonism, it propelled the nation toward its most earsplitting
conflict, the Civil War.

As to the challenges that historians face in utilizing the sensory world to understand change and other analytical issues Bell briefly quotes from a review by John Demos which appeared in the London Review of Books:

One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a
matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of
measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so
on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty
lurking beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the
senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of
individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through
further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and
(for lack of a better term) emotional charging. . . .

Demos may be right regarding his assessment of the sensory in arguing that it only provides context rather than any insight into causation, but this may have more to do with the limits of our ability to interpret the past than the physical/psychological truth about how we interact with our environment and process sensory data.  I assume this is what he means by suggesting that we need a way to "measure" the sensory with the political, etc.   

Demos’s second point – if I understand him correctly – is that the sensory cannot in and of itself lead to action.  This is the old Enlightenment view that draws a sharp distinction between the external world and the processing that takes place in the brain once that information is received through the senses.  Demos seems to believe that only with some kind of "cognitive assessment" will the sensory be shaped in such a way that it brings about some kind of action/behavior or report.  The problem is in trying to pin down what Demos means by cognitive assessment; more than likely he means something along the lines of rational thought or decision making.  There is an obvious weakness in this view: if we pay careful attention to our daily routines we notice that most of the time we are not consciously assessing our environment.  Most of the processing – for lack of a better word – is automatic.  Now you could argue that some type of processing is still necessary; however, it may look nothing like Demos’s "cognitive assessment."  I still think that Demos’s point can be applied to our epistemological limits in assessing historical action.  While the sensory may indeed have causal properties we are not able to translate them into a causal explanation.

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