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.


Drew G. Faust: Harvard President and Civil War Historian

By now most of you are no doubt aware of the fact that Drew G. Faust has been appointed to the top spot at Harvard.  Today I spent some time talking about the significance of this decision with my women’s history course.  While our discussion focused on this development within the much broader historical context of women’s entry into education I kept coming back in my own mind to the publicity that Civil War scholarship is getting in connection with this appointment.  Everyone knows that the new president of Harvard is a prominent Civil War scholar and for some reason what I like about this is that she is a woman.  She is a woman in what is all too often perceived as an area of history dominated by men who obsess over every detail of the battlefield.  I think the fanfare about Faust’s appointment serves as positive publicity in connection to the way I suspect most people perceive our field.  Anyone who has read her scholarship on slaveholding women, Confederate nationalism, and James H. Hammond appreciates Faust’s level of scholarship and sophistication.  While I’ve read most of her books my favorite article by her was published a few years back in the Journal of Southern History titled “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying” [(February 2001): 3-39].  In the article Faust provides an analysis of how the battlefield challenged cultural assumptions concerning the ideal death in the nineteenth century.  I’ve read this article through at least three during the course of my research on how Confederate soldiers understood the experience of watching comrades executed usually for desertion.

In short, Faust is a wonderful ambassador for Civil War scholarship.  For a brief moment the face of Civil War scholarship is not an overweight reenactor or someone who can tell us where Grant sneezed on the battlefield or someone trying to hold tight to some strand of the Lost Cause.  Not only is Faust a serious scholar, but she serves to remind the public that women have assumed a position of prominence in a field that has for too long been claimed as a man’s domain.


Where Is The Outrage?

Last week I posted a little item about the way the Confederate flag is used to sell anything from bedsheets to bikinis.  Ken Noe wrote-in wondering why we don’t hear more objections from Southern Heritage groups over the way the flag is represented on various products.  I was wondering the same thing and hoped that someone would respond in a way that would allow me to make just that point.  Let’s start out by admitting that an argument can be made in support of the Confederate flag in certain situations regardless of whether you agree.  For instance, while I do believe that the Confederate flag ought to be removed from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina it does seem reasonable to suggest that a reasonable argument can be made in support of keeping it in its present location.

What I find difficult to understand, however, is how the items linked to in my last post promote Confederate heritage.  Why isn’t this considered to be offensive by Southern heritage folks?  Consider recent news items involving the display of the flag on high school campuses.  Two students in Fort Worth, Texas are suing their school district for being sent home because their purses depicted the Confederate flag.  Or consider the refusal of a school in Kentucky to travel for a game owing to the fact that their students waved the Confederate flag in the stands.  Both cases raise important questions about the First Amendment, but the assumption that the behavior of these students reflects a sincere interest or concern in highlighting their "heritage" or history is suspect. In other words it seems reasonable to ask whether the simple fact of display implies anything having to do with heritage. 

My problem here is that the image of the Confederate battle flag is not by itself sufficient to conclude that the individual associated with it has the interests of the men who carried that flag into battle in mind.  There is a danger that the symbol’s historical significance becomes watered down to a point of triviality.  Confederate flags on purses or the image being waved at a sporting event seems to have little to do with heritage.  The symbolic content of the image is directly connected to the role it played on the battlefield, and the further it is removed from that context the less significant it becomes.  I browsed a bit on the internet store for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and noticed a wide range of items that include the image of the flag.  There are a few items that include the Confederate flag which are tastefully done.  While I have no problem with the identification of the flag as a reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the men who identified and forged relationships around it I do find it troubling that more people don’t see the marketing of it as antithetical to their memory.      


Teaching the Civil War and Reconstruction

My AP classes are now focusing on the entrance of the United States onto the world stage at the turn of the twentieth century.  At the same time we are talking about the emergence of Jim Crow legislation and the rise of lynchings throughout the South.  It’s interesting how our tendency to carve up the past into neat little chapters often obscures the extent to which earlier events continue to inform or shape later events.  I had one of those moments last week as I was preparing a presentation on the rise of Jim Crow.  It hit me that in an important way we were still talking about the Civil War.  I began the class by asking: “Who won the American Civil War?”  Of course the students looked at me with an odd grin, but I decided to go with it and let the silence take hold in hopes of making for an uncomfortable moment.  I eventually followed up by asking my students to think about the war and Reconstruction as beginning in 1861 and ending around 1900.  A few of the students understood exactly what I was asking and we ended up having a very interesting discussion.

My goal with the question was to have my students think seriously about the way in which the Civil War challenged basic assumptions about citizenship and race in the United States.  As a military order the Emancipation Proclamation raised questions that few people were prepared to debate seriously just a few years earlier.  By the end of the war a significant number of black Americans had fought and sacrificed in the Union armies and the institution of slavery was dead.  Emancipation alone, however, did not necessarily imply a certain set of positive civil rights such as the suffrage or equal protection under the law.  Whenever I teach Reconstruction I have my class think about the term from different perspectives.  There were a number of ideas about Reconstruction depending on whether you were a newly freed slave, a Republican in Congress or a white Southerner.  Different ideas of Reconstruction competed with one another during the thirty years following the war and they all hinge on the radical changes that the Civil War wrought.  Military defeat may have ended the war and slavery, but the form in which freedom would take for 4 million newly freed slaves had not been decided.

From this perspective it can be argued – as does Brooks Simpson – that the Civil War did not really end in 1865.  The issues of race and emancipation continued to be fought over within a political context and often through extra-legal means such as the Klan and other terrorist groups.  The Radical Republicans sought to protect the civil rights of black Southerners while many white Southerners hoped to regain control of their state governments and reconstruct them along lines that followed the racial hierarchy of the antebellum period.  This can be seen in the institution of black codes shortly after the war as a means to limit their political and social mobility.   By the mid-1870’s it became increasingly clear that northern Republicans were losing interest in military Reconstruction as western expansion and the challenges of increased industrial development took hold.  In addition, members of the old-guard such as Thadeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were gone while younger Republicans entered Congress never having experienced the political turmoil of the 1850’s.  Even Horace Greely had lost patience with Reconstruction as well as other Liberal Republicans.  While 1877 did not signal the end of black political participation in the South it can be seen as the beginning of a gradual loss of civil rights for black Americans that culminated in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Furgeson and the rise of the Jim Crow South.

This broader perspective makes it possible for teachers to ask questions that challenge our standard outline.  If we acknowledge that the Confederate government was fighting to preserve not just slavery, but a society based on a strictly defined racial hierarchy than we can make sense of the process by which black Southerners gradually lost the basic civil rights that they had worked so hard for during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Reconstruction is one of my favorite time periods to teach since it forces students to deal with the fact that the future of the country was not predetermined.  The subsequent racial story could have gone any number of ways.  The presidential election of 1876 did not close the door on black political action in the South.  The reconstruction vision of black Americans continued to compete with the reconstruction vision of the white South, and while their outlooks were largely mutually exclusive individuals like William Mahone and Ben Tillman continued to offer alternatives that involved bi-racial cooperation.  The rise of Lynchings along with the emergence of Redeemer governments connect directly to the way in the which both the Civil War and Reconstruction evolved.  The war over whether the United States was going to define citizenship along the color line continued as the nation pushed into the twentieth century.  Of course we could argue, as one of my students did, that the issues of race and emancipation continued well into the twentieth century.  This student suggested that we are still fighting the Civil War.  In a sense we are, but it seems to me that we can use the Spanish-American War and the move on the part of the southern states to rewrite their state constitutions in a way that disfranchised the largest number of southern blacks as an end point.  [By 1940 only 3% of southern blacks were registered to vote.]  Consider the above tableau that depicts national reconciliation just as the country geared up for war with Spain.  Perhaps the strong feelings of nationalism and the sweet taste of victory against a nation that posed not threat to this country can be interpreted as the end of the Civil War.

So who won the Civil War?