While attending the SHA in Richmond last weekend I took in three panels on various topics connected to the Civil War and the nineteenth-century South.  Panels ranged from discussions of Unionist activity in North Carolina to the marketing of Confederate nationalism to northern tourists throughout the postwar period. 

If you can actually sit through three 20-minute presentations than you can hopefully look forward to spirited exchanges between panelists and commentator along with the audience.  Not once did I hear someone ask where a panelist was from, whether he had a Union or Confederate ancestor or their political persuasion.  In addition, I don’t remember at any time hearing a question regarding an individual’s "loyalties"; no one asked whether a speaker was "anti-South", "anti-North" or anti – pro anything.  In short, no one asked anything personal as an explanation as to why one’s individual research project led to a certain set of conclusions.  I assume the panelists included liberals, conservatives, northerners, as well as southerners.  Some of them no doubt can trace their family histories back to certain places in the north as well as south and so on and so forth.  Now, why is it that the blogosphere is filled with these types of questions, accusations, and suspicions? 

I think the question can be explained in large part as a failure to come to terms with what the discipline of historical research involves.  That’s not an accusation, but it is telling that those who utter such claims do not seem to have any formal training in the field.  They fail to see the process of history as a conversation that takes place over time in monographs, journals, and other venues rather than a slugfest between people debating or placing significance on where your great-great grandfather lived or whether you teach in a northern institution of higher learning.  Historians work to better understand the past by challenging one another’s questions, assumptions, evidence, and conclusions drawn from a certain body of evidence.  It’s not meant to be a conversation over blame, vindication or anything else that may fall into a normative category. 

My publications and on-going research projects have nothing at all to do with a need to vindicate or vilify any one region of the country.  I have no idea what it even means to be engaged in such a project.  The terms that are thrown around such as Confederate heritage, Union heritage, anti-South, pro-North, etc. mean very little to me and do not in any way enter into my interest in American history.  The terms themselves reflect an overly simplistic way of thinking and fail in any way to track anything historically salient.  The idea that one can be pro- or anti-South assumes that the South is some kind of monolithic entity or uniform throughout.  These references have no historical validity whatsoever, but unfortunately, those who consistently refer to such things have read very little or are caught up in an overly personal attachment to some conclusion that can only be defended in such a way.  Closely related are the attempts to prop up or tear down certain individuals from the Civil War as if this has anything to do with serious scholarship.  What is even more disturbing is the implicit assumption that white southerners must hold to a certain set of beliefs simply because of their background while white northerners necessarily hold distinct views.  This is a true mark of absurdity, but in the blogosphere and the Civil War community generally its business as usual. 

History is an intellectual discipline that involves careful study and sophisticated dialog.  It demands that we put aside our emotional baggage to whatever extent possible, not to attain some vague notion of philosophical objectivity, but to keep ourselves open to learning more and understanding better. 

Mark your calendars for Saturday, November 17.  On that day the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will be hosting a special event featuring historian David W. Blight who will be discussing his new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.  Blight’s book includes two recently uncovered emancipation narratives one of which is by John Washington who lived in Fredericksburg.  I’ve already read both accounts and they are absolutely fascinating.  Blight’s introduction places these narratives within a broader historical context which helps to explain the genre and the time and place in which they were written.

Park historian John Hennessy was kind enough to ask me to join a special tour of John Washington’s world, including a trip into the living quarters where he spent much of his life and the site on the Rappahannock where Washington went across on April 18, 1862.  The tour will include Blight as well as a few of Washington’s descendants who have only recently been contacted and were not aware of the existence of this narrative.  Blight’s work on memory has been very important for my own research so it will be a real treat to finally meet him in person. 

John Hennessy should be applauded for his hard work in organizing events such as this.  I can think of no one who has done more to further the education of visitors to our Civil War battlefields.  John has already made use of Washington’s narrative in a recent park film on civilian life in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania County area.  Click here for his assessment as well as my review of the project.  I am really looking forward to this.

1831 We are finished with Ellis’s Founding Brothers and have moved on to Louis Masur’s 1831: The Year of Eclipse.  The first chapter covers Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Abolitionist Movement and the debate in Virginia following Turner’s insurrection.  Other chapters explore various themes of Jacksonian Democracy, including voting, religion, and politics.  We will read various sections of the book given our time constraints. 

This is a highly readable book that does a great job of presenting various subjects from multiple perspectives.  Masur’s narrative is weighed heavily with the words of the participants themselves.  Masur’s coverage of Turner and the response of white Virginians utilizes these multiple perspectives quite effectively.  In our discussion of how white Virginians explained the violence to themselves and one another a few of the students admitted to being overwhelmed by so many voices.  I asked the class why Masur would present the story in this way and immediately one of the students responded by suggesting that the author wants his reader to understand that the participants themselves did not know how to explain it.  In a related note we touched on the difficulty involved in explaining Turner’s insurrection given the assumptions that white Virginians held to regarding their slave communities and their own paternalism.  For example, Masur presents to strands of thought surrounding the origin of the insurrection.  Some people pointed to their own slaves as the source of the problem, but just as many argued that the instigators must have been from outside Southampton County.  They understood that if the source of the problem was from outside they could maintain their beliefs about the loyalty of their own slaves.

Today we read a few pages from Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and explored the difficulty of distinguishing between the interviewer and interviewee. 

I’ve been asked by James I. Robertson and William Davis of Virginia Tech to contribute a chapter to one of their forthcoming books in their series on Virginia’s Civil War.  Most of you have no doubt seen one of the first two volumes which cover 1861 and 1862; the next volume is scheduled for publication next summer.  The series is published by the University Press of Kentucky.  My subject is demobilization in Virginia post-Appomattox and is slated to appear in the final volume.  Not much has been written on the subject, although I do have a copy of Homeward Bound: The Demobilization of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1865-1866 (Stackpole Books, 2001).  I’ve looked through this book before, but it is very weak in places.  Interesting enough it turns out that Ida Tarbell wrote something on this subject.  The editors are looking for a 5,000 word essay that covers the scope of demobilization in Virginia.  While I assume that my main focus will be on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia other areas of the state will no doubt need to be explored.  The very scope of the subject needs to be analyzed.

So here is where you come in.  Admittedly my familiarity with this subject is limited.  I plan to attack the various repositories around the state, but please feel free to offer suggestions on additional secondary sources, including books and/or articles.  The more the better.

I had high hopes for Dixie Dawn.  I’ve been following this blog for a few weeks and while it has attracted a large number of comments on the standard issues that energize the neo-Confederate base it looks like it has run its course.  I was holding out on the possibility that Dixie would actually read one of the books cited in a recent post.  Unfortunately, it looks like its not going to happen.  Instead we continue to get emotional rants about a besieged South, silly stories about black Confederates, and vague references to the Confederate flag.  Given the number of posts about the flag perhaps she could have read John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006) or she could have read Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006) in connection with the stories of black Confederates.  And why is it that every post and internet site on this topic utilizes the very same images? 

Honestly, I was holding out for the best.