Sitting Atop The Google Search

Today I did a Google search for "Civil War Memory" and noticed that it has climbed to the #1 position.  It was stiff competition there for awhile with the UNC Press booksite for the edited collection, The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, but with your help we finally pulled ahead. 

I know this doesn’t mean a damn thing, but I thought I might announce it just the same.


Women’s History Course: A Brief Assessment

Snow Day!!!!

I am three weeks into my women’s history course and enjoying it a great deal.  I have 11 female students, all but two are seniors.  While the course is grounded in history I am trying to mix up the readings a bit to include both gender and feminist studies.  Since this is my first time teaching the course I am learning as I go.  More importantly I am learning a great deal from my students.  Teaching on the high school level leaves you with the impression that girls as a group are more mature than boys.  This class has already given me a clearer sense of just how true this is.  High School girls are able to talk more openly about certain issues and they listen more intently to one another.  What I am most pleased about is that a good number of my students are taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss and research issues that are already on their mind.  It’s as if the content of the course is teasing out ideas and thoughts that are already there.

We started the first week by reading a short introduction on the language of gender and the reasoning behind a class on women’s history.  We talked about the importance of understanding how women fit into American history and what it means that for so long they were ignored.  The class explored the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and wrote a concise overview of “the problem that has no name.”  Last week we started working with the textbook, which is well written, thorough, and organized around an excellent collection of different types of primary sources.  We started with the post-Civil War period and the split of the women’s movement into the NWSA and AWSA over the 15th Amendment as well as the entrance of women into the work force by the end of the twentieth century.  I have two black students in the class so I want to make sure to address issues that touch on the roles of black women in American history.  Luckily our textbook does an excellent job of covering issues that are specific to black women. I consider myself fairly well educated in the field of American history.  I teach the AP classes and I have a pretty solid grasp of the important secondary texts.  That said, I had no idea just how much I was missing before starting this class.  Interesting people are emerging as well as important Supreme Court Cases, and the way I understand what I already know is being enriched.  What more could I ask for?

This week we started our first project.  My class is exploring the concept of masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of images of Theodore Roosevelt.  I handed out a packet of images of Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War as well as images of him in connection with the Panama Canal and his role as Trust-Buster.  As we move through Roosevelt images that highlight the importance of the “strenuous life” or extreme masculinity the students can draw comparisons with how women are depicted in the outdoors.  I found some very interesting images of  bicycle advertisements that include women as well as images of women playing tennis and other sports.  The images attempt to strike a balance between play and maintaining accepted feminine qualities.  Students are required to write a 3-page essay based on their own interpretations of the sources.  As most of them are seniors I want to give them as much latitude as possible in developing their own thesis statements.   Next week we will jump to the suffrage movement and explore the steps that led to the 19th Amendment.  I plan to show the movie Iron Jawed Angels and have the students explore other primary sources from both well known and more obscure women who took part in the movement.  I would love to hear other suggestions for movies that would be appropriate for this class.

While I have a general outline of what I want to cover in this course specific topics along with the relevant primary and secondary readings are still up in the air.  As we into the twentieth century I hope to introduce the class to a combination of historical as well as feminist studies.  Over the summer I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth along with a wonderful collection of essays by Gloria Steinem titled Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.  It includes the classic essay “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”  While I’ve enjoyed these books I am having a hell of a time making my way through Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.  She offers a scathing argument against the “infertility epidemic” said to strike professional women who postpone childbearing; Faludi concludes that this is largely a media invention.  I also want to introduce the class to essays written by women that challenge the agenda of the feminist movement.

I am already thinking about what electives I might offer next year. While I am thoroughly enjoying the focus on women’s history I will probably be expected to teach the Civil War course once again.  One possibility may be to offer a Civil War course that focuses specifically on women’s experiences; the focus would be on the antebellum, war, and postwar periods.  I’ve also been playing around with a more creative approach that involves locating a diary or set of letters from a woman/sisters who lived here in Charlottesville/central Virginia during the war years.  I would focus the class on local history and have them help me prepare the archival material for publication.  Students would have their names connected to the final publication.  I know that John M. Priest utilized this approach on the high school level some years ago.  His students contributed to the editing of a unit history authored by Sergeant William H. Reylea.  It’s an interesting idea and would make for a truly unique high school experience.  For now it is enough that I am enjoying this experience and learning a great deal.


Propositions and Implications: A Response To Simpson

If you haven’t read Brooks Simpson’s most recent post over at Civil Warriors than do so before reading further.  I can’t think of a better way to highlight our collective bias in reference to how we think about our Civil War than by reflecting on Brooks’s series of questions.  It is clear that most of us would agree with the first three statements and disagree with the last three: "I raise these issues to ask whether there are the meaningful differences between these two sets of propositions, what they might be, and the implications one draws from that discussion. We owe it to ourselves to engage in that sort of discussion every once in a while rather than simply rehash the same old controversies."

I think it is safe to say that most of us would agree with the factual claims set forth in all six propositions.  That said, we would not draw the same moral lessons between the two.  Most of us would start from a broad moral assumption that we (Allies) were right and they were wrong; in other words there was a clear difference between the good guys and the bad guys.  From there it is a much easier step to question and analyze where these statement fall short in their assessment of the German/Nazi experience.   For example, we can agree that there was antisemitism in both the United States and Germany but in the case of the latter it manifested itself in the horrors of the Nazi death camps.  That is a relevant historical distinction that would be lost if we settled with the vague outlines of the original proposition.  We may be less likely to draw a moral distinction between the Germans in the regular army and those who served in SS units or who volunteered for political positions in the Nazi Party.  And we may also be less willing to distinguish between the moral responsibilities of the average German citizen for what transpired during the war compared with those in direct command.  In the case of the final statement about German soldiers we may agree that they did not take part in the Holocaust but we would be comfortable pointing out a causal connection between their actions on the battlefield which led to the extension of the war and the possibility of exterminating that many more innocents.

What I like about this little exercise is that it demonstrates that we can disagree on how to interpret the propositions about World War II without having to consider the individual making the claim.  In other words, we can have a debate without worrying about the  motivation behind the particular position.   I think that it is safe to say that is much more difficult to explore the first set of statements about the Civil War.  We don’t have the comfort of psychological distance when thinking about Germany; more importantly, the statements are typically used to stop discussion or exploration rather than to encourage it.  Those who push the envelope are under immediate suspicion.  Consider the second proposition that acknowledges the presence of racism in the North as well as the South.  It is historically true and no one will deny it; in fact I think parts of the North were much more racist at different times compared with the South.  The missing piece, however, is that slavery in the South  persisted much longer and even expanded significantly in a number of ways as the North gradually abolished it.  I assume that all of us agree with that statement and yet some of you out there can’t help but think that the statement is being made as a moral indictment of the South and all Southerners. 

We are much too defensive about our Civil War and much too wedded to a sanitized interpretation that tolerates little moral thought.  It is much safer to track the movements of soldiers rather than deal with complexity.  The minute someone brings up emancipation as somehow connected to Union policy beginning  in 1863 we hear that Lincoln was a racist and most Federal soldiers were fighting to preserve the union.  Yes, by our 21st century standards Lincoln would probably strike us as holding racist views.  However, he still believed that slavery was immoral and he did in fact sign the Emancipation Proclamation and never compromised in a way that threatened its basic provisions.  And most Federal soldiers were fighting for union and yet their marching orders starting in January 1863 turned the armies into armies of liberation whether they agreed or not – just ask William T. Sherman.

I find the final proposition re: the ownership of slaves to be the most interesting.  That statement is typically used to divorce the common Confederate soldier from the argument that he fought to protect slavery.  I like to think that I understand why that claim is so popular especially when used by those with ancestors who fought in the Confederate ranks.  I assume that I would be inclined to use it if in a similar position.  The argument comes in handy as a way to distinguish between the reasons individual men fought and the stated goal of the Confederate government which was to protect the institution of slavery.  What happens when we draw an analogy with American soldiers during Vietnam before the draft?  I assume that many men who volunteered did so for a range of reasons that had little to do with foreign policy concerns about the "Domino Theory."  Of course, the fact that some soldiers joined for reasons having little to do with this does not force us to rethink the role of the assumptions of the Domino Theory in understanding why the United States went to war in Vietnam. 

So, what are the implications surrounding the way we handle these two sets of propositions?   I think Brooks is right in pointing to the fact that we still have a great deal of difficulty talking about the moral dimensions of our Civil War.  Notice that we have little paitience sticking to a set of propositions that reduces or eliminates important historical/moral questions in the context of World War II; again the propositions may be factually correct, but fail to account for the complexity of what transpired during that war.  It is no doubt much more comfortable, however, to  think about our Civil War as a contest of brave soldiers that fought over a mere difference in constitutional principles.  We resist the move to question those propositions that reside at the surface of a much richer and challenging set of questions about race and slavery in American history.  To do so is to give up the entertainment value of our preferred narratives and the tendency to see our national narrative as leading inevitably to greater freedom and equality. 

Thanks Brooks for such a thought-provoking post.


Peter Carmichael on Civil War Talk Radio

I thoroughly enjoyed Friday’s interview with UNC-Greensboro historian Peter S. Carmichael.  Check out the interview, and more importantly, read The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunionit’s well worth the time.  I wanted to take a few minutes to comment on a few points made during the interview.  Carmichael touched on a number of issues in connection with his latest research, including his thoughts about battlefield interpretation and on the way the “last generation” forces us to rethink our assumptions about how we remember the Civil War and the postwar period.

At one point Carmichael touched on a point regarding the tendency for more traditional military narratives to ignore the ideological/political convictions of the soldiers on the field.  The question that prompted this comment asked about the experiences of Carmichael’s sample on the battlefield and their reputation as committed Confederates which in some cases bordered on the fanatical.  The traditional study can help us but little in understanding how men experienced the war since they tend to be seen as mindless chess pieces that are manipulated by their commanders.  Carmichael made the point by noting that the battlefield is a “site where you see the most extreme form of political action.”  For the men that comprise his study their battlefield experiences were a “consequence of their world view.”  Carmichael qualified this by giving a nod to the work of Bell I. Wiley who laid the foundation for our analytical studies of soldier life.  While Wiley tended to ignore the role of ideology as a motivator his research remains valuable to understanding the “material reality” of the common soldier.  I was pleased to hear that Carmichael is preparing the volume on Civil War soldiers for the Littlefield Series which is scheduled for release during the sesquicentennial.  He plans to provide both a historiographical overview of the field of soldier studies as well as a comparative account of Union and Confederate soldiers.  [Speaking of soldiers Chandra Manning is scheduled to be interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio in the next few weeks and her long-awaited study is also set for publication with Knopf in the near future.]

I was especially interested in Carmichael’s comments on the postwar years and memory.  He prefaced his comments by telling a short story about John W. Daniel who in 1867 spoke to a group of women at Manassas and told them to forget about the past.   Daniel’s comments serve to remind us that our own perceptions, which tend to be wrapped up in the blanket of Lost Cause ideology, was not by any means universally subscribed to by white southerners.  We tend to generalize about the different regions, and the most common move is to compare the industrial-capitalistic North with white Southerners who were defending the values of a traditional agricultural and peaceful society.  Carmichael’s young Virginians stand in sharp contrast with this overly simplistic image as they were pushing for a more progressive and expansive economy in the years leading up to the war.  That they continued to do so following the war did not represent any kind of betrayal, but a continuation of what they had assumed would further the interests of the Commonwealth before the fighting had started.  Of course they wanted all of this within a slave-holding society; the point is that what appears to be a mutually exclusive set of values is more a function of how we choose to remember and interpret the Southern past.  Is it any surprise that the way we remember certain iconic figures such as R. E. Lee – who of course is the paradigm example of this traditional picture of the South – is so grounded in an interpretation that stands in sharp contrast with our generalizations about the North in the nineteenth century.  And any attempt at questioning this is deemed to be “P.C” or “revisionist” or whatever – rather than the result of serious historical inquiry.  It is curious to me why some people simply assume such a defensive attitude in dealing with historians that question or suggest that our popular images of the past may not hold up under close scrutiny.  It reminds me of an out-of-control child screaming at the top of his lungs.

Carmichael reminds us that postwar Southern society was a “society up for grabs.”  While our popular memory assumes a society that struggled against the tide of modernism, capitalism, and black political power historians in recent years have uncovered a much more complex region.  Reconstruction was not a disaster for the white South; in fact we now know that increased black political action led to the first state schools in some parts of the South and other pieces of legislation that were impossible during the antebellum years when the elite slaveholding class governed.  In other words, not all white Southerners were on the same page after the war.  There is no better example of this than the four years of Readjuster control under the leadership of former Confederate Major General William Mahone.  The Readjusters increased black political office-holding which in turn led to an increase in the number of black students in the public schools as well as black teachers.  Mahone was despised by many white Virginians for threatening white supremacy and he was seen as a hero by both black and white Virginians.  While their control of the state government only lasted four years it is incredible to think that most Virginians no nothing about it.  The reason why we don’t remember is because we prefer to think of the white South as unified around a certain set of political assumptions.  In my research on Mahone and the Readjusters I went through scores of history texts that were used in the Virginia schools between 1900 and 1940 and could barely find a word about this important political movement.

The study of how American have chosen to remember the Civil War is not a conspiracy concocted by liberal-minded/revisionist/Eastern elite/Yankee historians who are bent on destroying all that is “good and pure” about the South.  [As I mentioned in a recent post most of these historians were born and bred in the South and educated in the South.]  One of the points that I am trying to make here is that there was never a time after the war when white Southerners were in agreement over how to remember the war.  The above-mentioned story about John Daniel reminds us that plenty of people were willing to give the back of their hand to the memorialization of the past and William Mahone was content to use the past to help with his own business and political interests.  White Southerners have been challenging the Lost Cause history of the war from the beginning.

Serious research is full of surprises; unfortunately, those surprises are sometimes perceived in a way that gives little weight or reflects little interest in how those conclusions were arrived at.  As someone who was born in New Jersey and came to the serious study of history in his mid-20’s I am fascinated by the complexity of Southern history.  My hope is to understand it better.


Jim Crow: Where and When?

Today I worked my way through the Richmond Daily-Dispatch looking for accounts of Confederate military executions when I came across this little item from February 17, 1865:

The negroes not to ride in the Philadelphia street cars.

–The Philadelphia Ledger contains the following account of the failure of the first regular effort to allow “colored” citizens to ride with whites in the street cars:

The Fifth and Sixth Streets-Railroad Company, with a view of testing how far public opinion desired, and would sanction, the carrying of colored passengers in the city railroad cars, four weeks ago passed an order removing all restrictions to passengers on account of color. The experiment has not been a successful one, and the company has been compelled to impose the restriction again, as the following [ annoucement ] of theirs show:

“At a meeting of the Board of Directors, held on the 6th instant, the following preamble and resolutions were adopted:

“Whereas, the Frankford and Southwark Passenger Railroad Company have been carrying colored passengers, without restriction, for the last four weeks, and the experiment has resulted in a serious prejudice to the company, arising from hostility to the measure on the part of the patrons of the road, and a want of sympathy on the part of other similar companies; and whereas, the directors, whatever their private views may be, cannot consistently jeopardize the pecuniary interests of the stockholders; therefore.

“Resolved, That the order admitting colored persons be rescinded from and after the 10th instant, except on special cars, to be appropriated.

“Resolved, That every fifth car be appropriated for colored passengers.”

One difficulty with the railroad companies is, that there are not enough colored persons disposed or able to ride in cars to make up for the loss
sustained by white customers refusing to ride with the colored persons, and it is not to be expected that business companies will sacrifice their pecuniary interests to carry out a political or social principle.