Hitting The Wall Of Civil War Entertainment

I read with great interest Mark Grimsley’s most recent post over at Civil Warriors which discusses his recent involvement in a History Channel documentary that focused on "terror" during the Civil War.  One can easily feel for a professional historian who goes out of his way to ensure that a popular documentary will present an interpretation that is grounded in the best current historical interpretations.  Anyone familiar with Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War knows that he is well qualified to comment on the distinction between the myth and historical reality behind Sherman’s 1864 "March to the Sea."  That this event was even included in a documentary about terror reflects the clash between history and historical entertainment.  Perhaps Mark should have known beforehand that the producers would be concerned as much (if not more) with the traditional story of Sherman’s March that includes countless rapes and pillaging by the "yankee hordes."  Their primary concerns are in pushing a narrative that viewers find entertaining, and what unfortunately qualifies are the colorful stories from "Lost Cause" and reconciliationist history.  From his post:

I haven’t seen the whole thing [Hist.Channel Doc], but I did view the chapter on Sherman’s Marches (which included a couple of other historians, among them William C. “Jack” Davis, in addition to myself). It was very interesting to see. On the one hand, we talking heads all made the point that Sherman’s Marches overwhelmingly targeted property, not people, and that assaults and rapes were surprisingly rare. On the other, our commentaries were interspersed with lurid reenactments of the few instances in which people were targeted, most notably a man partially hanged to extort from him the hiding place of his money (see the upper left part of the poster), and a Union soldier leering at a comely young white Southern lass, grabbing her by the arm, and pulling her off camera, presumably to suffer The Fate Worse Than Death.

Which scenes do you suppose made the biggest impression on the audience: me doing my patented “interplay of severity and restraint” routine or folks getting hanged and (by implication at least) raped?

I still applaud Mark for taking the time to contribute to this documentary.  Yes, there will be plenty of viewers who brush his segments off as another piece of so-called revisionist history, but professional historians have a responsibility to take advantage of opportunities to educate the general public.  Too many have ignored their responsibilities in this area in favor of narrow audiences that rarely include those from outside academia.  Civil War historians like Mark Grimsley have a unique opportunity to engage wide audiences through the publication of books, interviews, etc. 

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First Middle Tennessee State University And Now A Florida High School

Now is not a good time to invest in N.B. Forrest stock.  A recent controversy erupted at Middle Tennessee State University involving a petition to change the name of a building named after Forrest and now students at a Florida high school are requesting that the Board change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School.  According to this article, "The students claim Forrest’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan, which Forrest later broke off, is the reason the Westside high school should be given a new name." 

Here is what one "historian" by the name of Al Wadsin had to say: "He was a southern patriot and he deserves to have something named after him, like Lee or Jackson — they are all patriots. They are all good Americans, and I think they all got a bum rap on the slavery issue."  Thanks Al for that shot of reconciliationist history and for the analytical rigor that went into your reference to a "bum rap."  Perhaps my friend and fellow historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean who was also interviewed for this article can help us out here.  "He was a slave trader before the Civil War. He was a very effective Calvary leader for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And then after the Civil War, he was involved in the early stages of the Ku Klux Klan" writes Sheehan-Dean.  Why he left the Klan, according to Sheehan-Dean is irrelevant since "The whole purpose of the Klan was designed to protect the old order the Civil War had overturned.

I know there are some people out there who prefer to see Forrest as some kind of Christian Warrior, but in doing so haven’t we left the realm of history in favor of an extreme form of presentism?


Eric H. Walther’s Yancey

William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil
. By Eric H. Walther. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xi, 477 pp.
Acknowledgments, introduction, legacy, bibliography, index. Cloth $39.95, ISBN 0-8078-3027-5).  This review is slated for publication in the journal Louisiana History.

With the 1993 publication of The Fire Eaters (LSU Press) Eric H. Walther established himself as one of the leading historians of the most radical sect of southern political leaders of the 1850’s. That earlier study included William L. Yancey who is the subject of his most recent biography. Yancey, along with Robert B. Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and Louis T. Wigfall and others stood out owing to their adherence to secession as a means to securing Southern liberty, honor and ultimately the protection of slavery, and not simply as a way to gain concessions from the North. In drawing these discussions Walther demonstrated that not all Southern radicals could properly be classified as fire-eaters; however, the latter camp did represent the interests of many white
Southerners and their views were met with widespread support. The fire-eaters were a diverse group that did not always agree with one another, but their agreement that the federal government constituted a threat to Southern society suggests that secession was not a conspiracy, but a reflection of a deeply embedded commitment to defend the interests of a slave society.

Walther’s most recent book offers a detailed and sympathetic examination of how William L. Yancey evolved into one of the South’s most vocal fire-eaters of the antebellum period, Confederate senator and commissioner to England. Walther’s Yancey is complex and his personal journey into becoming a radical was anything but pre-determined. In achieving these ends Walther does not shun the categories of psychohistory; in fact, he refers to Yancey’s “search for
order” and a need to find a substitute for his stepfather, the Reverend Nathan Beman, who was both abusive and an ardent abolitionist. “The violence of his youth” writes Walther, “planted the seeds of violent acts later in his life, affairs of honor that won him the respect of many in the South.” (374) Yancey spent his early years in the North and was educated at Williams College before moving to South Carolina where he edited a newspaper and studied law under the direction of Benjamin Perry who argued against John Calhoun’s theory of nullification. Yancey adopted the unionist views of his mentor before moving to Alabama where he was then influenced by his cousin Jesse Beene and Dixon H. Lewis who was one of the leading states’ rights Democrats. In 1841 Yancey was elected t as a congressman.

This drive to maintain order and his fervent defense of his personal values and honor led to both and incident in 1838 where he fatally shot his wife’s uncle and a duel with North Carolina congressman Thomas L. Clingman. Yancey’s outbursts and attacks in congress against some of the more notable northern politicians such as John Q. Adams and Daniel Webster won Yancey much support and influence. However, even with strong statements insupport of the “Alabama Platform” and against the Compromise of 1850, according to Walther, Yancey only moved beyond a need to please political mentors following the death of Calhoun.

Throughout the 1850’s Yancey’s political convictions grew more radical than those of his mentors and became associated with a growing group that viewed the Union only as a means to protecting the interests of white southerners and secession as a viable alternative in case the federal government failed in that
responsibility. In 1859, Yancey urged the calling of a convention by the state of Alabama, in the event of the election of the Republican candidate for president in 1860. At the Democratic convention of 1860, he and other southern extremists withdrew. In March 1861, he was sent by Provisional
President Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s first Commissioner to England and France, seeking recognition. Following his return to Alabama in 1862, Yancey was elected to the Senate of the Confederacy, and served until his death on July 27 1863. Walther shows that although Yancey clashed with President Davis over constitutional principles and the growing power of the Confederate government he remained willing to negotiate for the benefit of the country that he helped bring about. Yancey died at the age of forty-nine due to kidney failure.

Eric H. Walther has succeeded in crafting a sympathetic and analytical biography of Yancey that reveals as much about the society and politics of the Deep South as it does about his own complex and controversial public life.


Surveying My Audience

At approximately 11:20am I checked my Sitemeter and saw that there were 27 people on the blog.  It’s impossible to conclude much from the information that is provided, but of the 27 logged on at least eight were associated with a K-12 or college/university:

K-12 (Utah), University of Dayton, Auburn University, University of Baltimore, Ohio State University, University of Sussex, University of Sheffield, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I like that there seems to be something here for everyone – even for my friends in England.


Dirck On Foner

Make sure you head on over to Brian Dirck’s A Lincoln Blog for his response to Eric Foner’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post about George Bush.  It’s well worth your time.