A Blogging Confession

I am not happy with the quality of my blogging in recent weeks.   The few days in Atlanta allowed me some time to think a bit more critically about why I blog, and I was surprised to realize that I didn’t miss being away from it.  I actually thought about bringing my laptop to Atlanta for blogging purposes, but thankfully I decided against it.  I am certain that not bringing it made for a much more pleasant trip.

As many of you know I have maintained a fairly steady schedule of blog posts since starting in November 2005.  On most days you can read at least one post and sometimes as many as three.  While the amount of time I spend actually typing in a post is surprisingly short I do think a great deal about possible topics and whether they would make for interesting reading.  The other aspect that I am somewhat wary of is the extent to which my cynical side has emerged in my writing.  I’ve been criticized for the way I’ve referenced the writings of others and perhaps it is even justified.  Still, I stand behind everything I’ve said even if the tone could have been more palatable for some.  Let me say up front that I never thought of this blog as a way to make friends.  Links have been added by others to this blog and taken off for various reasons; at no time did I take it personally.  This sense of community is apparent among CW bloggers and for some I imagine that it is of some value.  For me it is more illusory.  That’s not to say that I have not enjoyed communicating with other bloggers just that I don’t necessarily blog to make friends or as a means to interact with others who share a common interest.  Issues surrounding how we write and think about the Civil War (and American history generally) matter to me for a number of reasons and at times that has emerged in my writing.

I’ve read that the average life of a blog is somewhere around a year.  There is a great deal of excitement early on which translates into a flurry of activity, but this eventually trails off into fewer posts and an overall lack of substance.  I now have a better sense of why that happens.  Bloggers begin to rehash old arguments and strain for fresh material and this tends to be accompanied by a certain amount of frustration.  Along with this is the feeling of obligation to those people who stop by at least once a day and often more than once.  There is a danger in allowing this to drive your blogging; for me it detracts from why I got into blogging to begin with.  Admittedly part of what is difficult for me to come to terms with is the fact that I tend to obsess about certain things; in other words, I find it difficult to pace myself.  In the case of blogging I find it especially difficult to pace myself because I tend to think that blogs should be updated on a regular basis.  I often wonder what’s wrong with those people who post infrequently (LOL).  In short I don’t want to end up posting for the sake of posting.

If you happen to be concerned that I am signing off let me assure you that I am not going anywhere.   What I am trying to say is that I do need to figure out how to proceed.  You may notice a change in the number of posts over the next few weeks.  To be honest I don’t know what will happen, but I do think that a healthy reassessment of what I am doing here is necessary.


Where Do We Go From Here?

In my comments at the AHA I made some brief remarks in my talk and during the Q&A about possible avenues for future research in connection with Civil War veterans and memory.  I thought I might take a minute and extend those thoughts to this sub-field as a whole.  Others have commented that the topic of Civil War memory is a passing fad, but a quick glance at the range of topics and types of questions that have been explored in recent years suggests that the field will continue to expand, especially with the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011.

Surprisingly, given the number of recent studies there are big gaps in the literature that are just waiting to be explored.  One of the most popular subjects for historians, including yours truly, has been the exploration of how battles and the ground on which they were fought were remembered and commemorated. We have excellent studies of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox; however, we still need interpretations of “Sherman’s March,” Andersonville and even the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimac.  Military figures such as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have proven to be popular subjects for study, but that short list could easily be expanded. First, the list tends to be dominated by white southerners which I suspect has much to do with the popularity of the Lost Cause. Donald Collins recently released a very short study of Jefferson Davis and memory; unfortunately that book is really a missed opportunity as the author failed to fully explore the subject.  Benjamin Butler would make for an ideal subject as well as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman’s postwar military career contribute to the way we remember him?  Joan Waugh is currently working on a book that explores how Grant was remembered and his place in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century civic culture.  The book is slated for publication with UNC Press.

Very little has been done on the Copperheads apart from Jennifer Weber’s fine study.  We need to know much more about northern dissidents and how their wartime political stance was handled locally following the war.  How did their memories of the war conflict with and evolve as the nation mourned Lincoln’s assassination, expanded economically, and became even more centralized? On the other side of the Potomac John Sarris’s study of northwest Georgia suggests that much more needs to be done on southern dissidents.  I mentioned in my AHA comments that community or local studies provide an ideal focus for the examination of memory.  Historians have begun to examine counties and regions, but little has been done on cities such as Charleston, New

York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.  My guess is that the urbanization of many cities and the influx of new ethnic groups presented some interesting challenges that became intertwined with Civil War remembrance and civic memory.  I suspect that these local perspectives are going to shed light on a great deal of disagreement over how the war was to be remembered.  The National Park Service would also make for an ideal study, which is absolutely essential given the recent controversy about how the park service should interpret our Civil War battlefields.  My work on the Crater clearly demonstrates that the park service inherited a specific interpretation of the battle that was tightly controlled by white southerners and the veterans themselves.  The park service gained control of the battlefield in 1936 and accepted without question an interpretation that ignored the participation of USCT’s and their treatment following the battle by Confederates.  I cite this as one example, but I suspect that much more could be done as battlefields at Chickamauga  and Antietam were turned into National Military Parks.  One of the most common rebuttals against the expansion of the NPS’s interpretive focus is that it should not be in the business of interpretation.  An examination of the Crater battlefield demonstrates that the NPS was involved in interpretation from the beginning – and a rather narrow interpretation at that.

Feel free to offer additional suggestions.


Placing A Stone On A Grave

I am currently reading through Mark H. Dunkelman’s new book, War’s Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers (LSU Press, 2006).  In many ways this is a companion volume to his fine regimental study, Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment (LSU Press, 2004) which focused on the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry.  Dunkelman’s regimental history is one of the best examples of what we can be done when the right questions are asked; the author examines both the political and social dynamics of the unit as well as the way it functioned as an extension of the home front.  Even better, Dunkelman extends his history of the unit into the postwar years.  As I mentioned in my post the other day, unfortunately, this aspect is often overlooked in unit histories.  While the rigors of battle and camp life were no longer functioning as the glue that tied the men together the veterans remained active in organizations, reunions, reenactments, and crafting their preferred history of their service in the army.

Dunkelman’s most recent study is difficult to categorize.  The book includes 12 sketches of men who served in the 154th New York.  The particular individuals were chosen based on the uniqueness of their story.  As the men served in the same unit they shared a broad range of experiences; however, Dunkelman manages to locate stories which remind us that each soldier experienced the war in their own way.  One of the most interesting stories involves Private Milton H. Bush who managed to find a substitute only to discover in 1864 that his name had never been taken off the muster rolls.  Bush was forced to join the army in 1864 and while his paper work requesting a discharge based on the obvious mistake that had been made was working its way through the military’s bureaucracy his unit was ordered to Georgia.  While fighting in Georgia Bush was stricken with a bowel disorder and was sent to Nashville for convalescing where he died.  The paperwork that granted Bush his discharge came through two months after his death.

To be honest I was a little wary of this book.  It does not have the analytical rigor of his regimental study, which is somewhat surprising for an academic press book.  It will be interesting to see if reviewers harp on that alone.  I say that because if they do dwell on that alone they would have missed something that I am still trying to put my finger on.  Books on the common soldier are nothing new and the number and sophistication continues to increase with each passing year.  That said, there is something attractive about a stripped down study of average soldiers without the analytical framework.  Each chapter begins with a trip to a cemetery which the author narrates.  At first I found it to be distracting but then I was reminded of a common practice in the Jewish tradition, which involves placing a stone on the grave being visited.  It is both a sign of respect and a sign that someone was present.  In a way Dunkelman’s book functions along similar lines.  Each soldier’s name serves as the chapter title and no more than 25 pages are set aside for each individual.  And when you get down to it they probably don’t deserve much more.  However, that is not really the point, what matters is that they are acknowledged.  In the end the individuals emerge for just a short time and while they make an impression they soon fade away.


The Year Of Lee

Most of you are no doubt aware that 2007 is the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth.  There will be a great deal of celebration and perhaps even a little history to go along with it.  A reader was kind enough to draw my attention to the Virginia Senate Joint Resolution No. 382 which among other things established a "joint subcommittee to plan and coordinate the 200th anniversary celebration of the birth of Robert E. Lee. Report."  The following section lays out who will serve on the committee:

RESOLVED by the Senate, the House of Delegates concurring, That a joint subcommittee be established to plan and coordinate the 200th anniversary celebration of the birth of Robert E. Lee. For this occasion, the joint subcommittee is hereby designated the official Robert E. Lee Memorial Commission of the Commonwealth. The joint subcommittee shall have a total membership of 14 members that shall consist of six legislative members, five nonlegislative citizen members, and three ex officio members. Members shall be appointed as follows: two members of the Senate to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules; four members of the House of Delegates to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates in accordance with the principles of proportional representation contained in the Rules of the House of Delegates; two nonlegislative citizen members, one of whom shall represent the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one of whom shall represent the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules; and three nonlegislative citizen members, one of whom shall represent the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, one of whom shall represent the Confederate Memorial Literacy Society, and one of whom shall represent Washington and Lee University to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates. The Director of the Department of Historic Resources, the Executive Director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction shall serve as ex officio members without voting privileges. Nonlegislative citizen members of the joint subcommittee shall be citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Unless otherwise approved in writing by the chairman of the joint subcommittee and the respective Clerk, nonlegislative citizen members shall only be reimbursed for travel originating and ending within the Commonwealth of Virginia for the purpose of attending meetings. If a companion joint resolution of the other chamber is agreed to, written authorization of both Clerks shall be required. The joint subcommittee shall elect a chairman and vice chairman from among its membership, who shall be members of the General Assembly.

Additional "technical support" will be provided by the Department of Historical Resources, Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Department of Education.  Someone please point out to me where the hell are the historians.  Notice there is no one from the Museum of the Confederacy, Library of Virginia, National Park Service or the Virginia Historical Society. 

With this make-up we can anticipate numerous lecture series like the one set for April which is being sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute.  The title of the event is "Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?"  With a title like that you can expect some heavy-duty historical thinking. Here is a description provided on their website:

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee’s views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

I love the attention to character evaluation in the form of mutually exclusive choices: Was he this or that?  I have to hand it to them, the conference organizers apparently chose just the right people to discuss this topic.  They include among other Ron Maxwell and Thomas DiLorenzo.  If anyone actually attends this event please let me know if they ever get around to talking about history.


Library of Virginia Examines Virginia History and Myth

The Library of Virginia is off to a fast start in its examination of 400 years of Virginia history.  The next few weeks will include a number of very interesting exhibits and talks.  Its exhibit "Myth and Memory: Exploring 400 Years of Virginia History" opens on January 8 and runs to December 2007. 

Myth & Memory will explore how Virginians remember and shape their history. Anchored by the 1907 and 1957 Jamestown expositions, the exhibition will examine other commemorative events, including the centennial and bicentennial of Yorktown, Emancipation celebrations, Confederate reunions, and local centennial events. Myth & Memory will suggest what history is and explain how public memory reflects our knowledge and life experiences.

I may drive down on Friday to take a look and if I do expect a full report.  The Commonwealth of Virginia has an incredibly rich history and as I’ve learned over the past few years much of that history takes the shape of myth.  For someone interested in the intersection of history and myth there is no better place to live and research.