Yes, this will be my last post on Gods and Generals. I watched the closing segments of the movie with my students for the first time and it didn’t disappoint. One of my students was a bit confused by the night scene in which Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men. When I told her that this was in fact the case she responded simply: "That sucks!" Indeed it does. That tragedy of Jackson’s wounding comes through loud and clear in Lee’s more poignant plea that "Surely Jackson will recover." And, of course, we get the old left arm right arm line. No surprise that Maxwell decided to milk Jackson’s final moments with his Esposita and his personal black servant looking on right to the end. I actually enjoyed that scene and thought it to be quite touching.
As I’ve pointed out before, this movie is really about Stonewall Jackson. What I find troubling, however, is the illusion that no doubt many people are operating under which renders Jackson’s life intelligible. I’ve read and even re-read Robertson’s biography, but for the life of me I really do not understand Jackson and I’m not sure I want to. I find it difficult to interpret his own words which are consistently laced with what appears to me to be the ideas of a zealot. Perhaps the perceived extremism of radical Islam provides a context for understanding Jackson’s language and behavior. Is there really a significant difference here? I think if they could most reasonable people would encourage radical Islamic terrorists to re-think some of their more "extreme" religious views that have led to the murder of innocent people. It is interesting how we pick and choose between extreme religious attitudes that are tolerated and those that we consider to have fallen of the spectrum entirely. Does Jackson ever question his beliefs about the meaning of the war or how it should be conducted? Would Jackson have been justified to step back and re-examine his stand on Union prisoners of war?
This seems to be another example of the unquestioning obedience that we love to celebrate in our Civil War. It’s not that I have a problem with a movie that places religion at the forefront; religion did play an important role that may be difficult for many to identify with today. What I have a problem with is the celebratory and unquestioning way in which most Civil War enthusiasts lap it up. It’s another aspect of the implicit belief that our Civil War was unique. It is much easier to offer an "objective" critique of Sunnis and Shiites compared with what had become a fairly hardened theological divide between North and South by 1860. This divide should not simply be interpreted as tragic, but as a fundamental problem with religious doctrine.
I had a feeling that McWhiney’s death would re-kindle the controversies surrounding some of his more suspect historical theories. There is a thread on H-South which addresses the appropriateness of any serious critique of McWhiney’s views so close on the heels of his death. Unfortunately, the participants in this discussion don’t really get beyond petty bickering to a serious discussion except for Jim Loewen and Edward Sebesta. Start here with the reprinted obituary from the Chicago Tribune and then click here for May’s strand and scroll down to the bottom for the first entry. No doubt this discussion thread will soon grow sufficiently nauseating as most threads have in recent months. Has anyone else noticed the deteriorating quality of the posts on these listserves?
I was reading the latest issue of The Atlantic and came across an interesting quote which was contained in Benjamin Schwarz’s review of a recent study of bombing campaigns during WWII. The author is Edgar L. Jones who was a veteran and reporter for the magazine in the last years of the Pacific War. From a 1946 report:
"We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? … As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency…"
"Why the Civil War Still Matters"
Many of you have no doubt already read my old post "Why the Civil War Still Matters" which was picked up by the History News Network. I’ve been meaning to highlight the exchange that took place with historian Richard F. Miller that followed the posting on HNN. Richard took issue with some of my points and the assumptions that lay behind my research on the memory of the Crater and how the battlefield should be interpreted by the National Park Service. I think the exchange reflects the kind of interaction that is possible on-line between individuals that are open to debating the tough issues. Richard’s tough questions forced me to go back and think through a number of issues. Anyway, if you are interested in reading the exchange click here.
John Bowie Magruder
On a different note, I am currently putting together a talk on Col. John Bowie Magruder which will be presented on May 31 at the Albemarle County Historical Society here in Charlottesville. Magruder was born and raised in the Charlottesville area and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1860. He rose to the rank of colonel of the 57th Virginia Infantry and was mortally wounded at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. I published an article in the Magazine of Albemarle County History back in 2002 and even won an award for it. At the time Peter Carmichael had published a few articles on his young Virginians and I even had access to a few manuscript chapters. But the recent publication of his book-length study has given me reason to go back and think through Magruder’s place within this highly selective group. Unfortunately, Magruder did not make the cut for Carmichael’s study, but his M.A. thesis was referenced in the bibliography. I am going to write up a new version of the article this month for publication in the magazine America’s Civil War so keep an eye out.
John Christopher Winsmith
Also keep an eye out in an upcoming issue of America’s Civil War (I think it should be the August issue) for a sample from the letters collection of Captain John C. Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry. This is a 7-page letter that was written on May 15, 1864 at the height of the fighting around Spotsylvania Court House. I think it will give you a sense of why I am so excited about the future publication of this collection.
Today my AP students take their big test. The last few weeks were a bit intense as students began the review process and continued in a race against time to finish the textbook. I have mixed feelings about the AP program. On the one hand I actually like the test. It is a nice combination of objective questions (multiple choice) and analytical essays, including the DBQ (document based question) which asks students to respond to a question with what they know (background information) along with the interpretation of a series of documents. The essays encourage interpretation and a strong analytical approach to writing. We work incessantly throughout the year developing both the necessary interpretive skills and analytical writing. The part that I don’t like is the idea of an entire year hinging on one test. All of my students have made progress and a few have made incredible strides throughout the year. I would hate for one of these kids to be reduced to thinking about the year based on one test score. Much of the anxiety about this test is related to the more general fears surrounding getting into college, which is becoming more difficult each year.
If I had my choice I would teach an Honors-type class rather than the AP. I could conduct the class at my own pace and concentrate on specific events and individuals rather than proceed in a race against time to finish an entire textbook along with a great deal of irrelevant knowledge that is needed for the test. Do they really need to know the Rush-Bagot Treaty? I have really smart kids in my two AP sections and I would love the opportunity to focus on questions and debates that would give them a much more nuanced and meaningful interpretation of the American past rather than a "superficial" overview of every event. Unfortunately, AP classes are very popular at this school especially with the parents so there is no chance of this changing any time soon.
I have to say that I am a bit nervous today. I care deeply about my students and I respect the fact that they want to do well today. They deserve to do well and I am confident they will.