"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.
A few days ago the Washington Post ran a story about George Allen’s flirtation with the Confederate flag. Now the New Republic continues the investigation with an extended piece by Ryan Lizza:
On the right, a debate is now brewing about what Allen’s four-decade embrace of the Confederate flag means for his presidential ambitions. Some are bothered by the revelations. At the influential conservative website Redstate.com, the blogger The Collegian, who volunteered for Allen in 1993, writes, “George Allen did not simply adopt an affection for the South, but the South at a certain time: a time when it was fighting to keep slavery legal. Even this would be ok if he had some family tie to the region at that time, but he doesn’t. I find that to be disturbing.”
But there’s a second view. It is best expressed to me by Stevens, now a consultant to John McCain. He argues strenuously that I should not write a piece about Allen and the Confederate flag. He says it would be unfair to Allen. But, when I explain Allen’s record on the issue, he makes another argument that has nothing to do with fairness, and I figure out why he is so forceful. “Well, you also realize you’re getting him votes for the primary, right?” Stevens says, alluding to key states in the South. He raises his voice to a shout: “You’re getting him votes! Big time!”
We shall see if there is any fallout, but my guess is that Allen’s choice as the Republican nominee for president will have little to do with his little Confederate flag fetish.
We are almost finished with Gods and Generals. I’ve actually never scene most of the second half since I walked out of the theater just before intermission when it first ran in theaters. There is an interesting scene involving Stonewall Jackson and Sandie Pendleton in which they discuss just what is at stake if the Confederacy fails in its bid for independence. Jackson makes it clear that if the "Yankees" lose they still get to all go home with their "profits" from the war effort. This is obviously an attempt to reduce the cause of the United States government to one of profit and greed as opposed to the Confederacy which was attempting to save a "nation" as Jackson suggests in the scene. Unfortunately, this contrast seems to be alive and well in many Civil War circles to this day. We love to contrast the "Old South" of peaceful plantations with the industrial North. The point of the movie in contrasting the Confederacy and the United States in such a way is to suggest that the latter’s cause did not rise to an abstract level of political principle, but was rooted in the physical world of ego and greed. Let’s forget that the overwhelming number of Northerners farmed for a living and that not everyone in the South yearned for a society void of industry. Many young Virginians argued that limited industrial growth would place the Commonwealth back in its rightful place as a national leader. Such generalizations about regions and the people who reside therein is what animates Gods and Generals and that is why it is such a dangerous movie. It simply reinforces these stereotypes and gives the back of its hand to more complex dialogue.
Another strange scene takes place on the Rappahanock River between a lone Confederate and Union soldier who exchange tobacco and coffee. There is not one word spoken as the two men sample the others offering. Somehow the viewer is supposed to believe that everything that needs to be said can be conveyed visually. I remember being so frustrated with the characters in the movie Pearl Harbor that I found myself actually rooting for the Japanese. In this movie it is easy to imagine Turtledove’s AK-47′s entering the story and eliminating the characters on both sides.
Well, the school year is winding down for me. My two AP History sections are set to take their big test on Friday and I am confident that they will do just fine. I am always on the lookout for additional readings to supplement their textbook and other primary documents. The latest issue of the New Yorker includes an excellent review by historian Jill Lepore of two new studies which explore the lives of slaves who escaped to the British army during the Revolution.
This is an important perspective to introduce in the classroom. Most of my students are "hard-wired" to think narrowly when it comes to thinking about freedom and what it means to Americans during the conflict with Great Britain. It is a war between white people and about abstract concepts of taxation, slavery, and representation. Most of my students know nothing about the experiences of black Americans who fought in both the Continental and British armies. Keep in mind that most of my students last learned American history in the 7th grade. I use the story of black fugitive slaves who fought with the British as a way to challenge this traditional "Whig" interpretation. This is not meant in any way as part of a broad attack on the Founding Fathers; I am very careful to encourage my students to critically examine their ideas about slavery and freedom within the bounds of the Founders’ experiences and their sense of what was possible. Gordon Wood has made this point numerous times in various books. I want my students to learn the importance of perspective in analyzing the past. The past looks different depending on what you read and who is included in the narrative. While a significant number of black men fought with Washington I emphasize those slaves who risked their lives to escape to the British lines in hopes of attaining their freedom.
This forces students to re-think the overly simplistic good guys v. bad guys paradigm. In fact, just a few weeks after the delegates to the Second Continental Congress formerly parted with Britain, Harry Washington left Mount Vernon for Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. He wore a uniform with the stitched motto: "Liberty to Slaves." It is estimated that between 80,000 – 100,000 former slaves (1 in 5) fled their homes for the freedom of the British army. Many of course died in battle, from disease, ended up in places they did not desire to be or were returned to their owners. One fifteen year old who was returned to her master following a failed attempt to locate Dunmore’s regiment was whipped 80 times by her master. If that wasn’t sufficient punishment he also applied hot embers to her wounds. Those that were "lucky" enough to find their way to the British armies ended up in England, Sierra Leone, and Nova Scotia.
Lepore speculates on why these stories of escaped slaves who left America following the war have been largely forgotten. She suggests that 19th century abolitionists are partly to blame:
But those who did leave America also left American history. Or, rather, they have been left out of it. Theirs is not an undocumented story; it’s just one that has rarely been told, for a raft of interesting, if opposing reasons. A major one is that nineteenth-century African-American abolitionists decided that they would do better by telling the story of the many blacks who fought on the patriot side during the Revolution, and had therefore earned for their race the right to freedom and full citizenship and an end to Jim Crow.
Lepore’s suggestion that African-Americans are partly responsible for the disappearance of black men who fought with the British is disturbing on two levels. First, is simply the idea that African-Americans must remind white Americans of their service in a war for independence that is already growing dimmer by the year. More importantly, it looks like the project of crafting a story of black participation in the burgeoning national narrative pushed black Americans further from a much richer history of independence and the deeply entrenched desire for freedom.