Winsmith Letter Published

The most recent issue of the magazine America’s Civil War (Sept. 2006, pp. 11-14) includes a sample from the John C. Winsmith Letters that I am currently editing for publication.  This specific letter was written from Spotsylvania Court House on May 15, 1864.  I think you will understand, based on the content, as to why I am so excited about this project.  There are roughly 260 letters of this quality.  While I’ve completed the transcription of the letters I still have a great deal of research to do on the family.  This explains the scant amount of information in the introduction, and I still do not have an image of Winsmith.  I had hoped to travel to Spartanburg, South Carolina this summer to do the necessary research, but at this point it looks like it will have to be pushed back. 

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Appomattox Fluff

I don’t usually post about editorials that reference the Civil War but this one was too good to pass up.  Given the content of this editorial I am surprised that it hasn’t been used more often, but perhaps it is just another indication of the extent of our lack of interest in history.  Anyway, it seems that one Silvio Laccetti, Professor of Social Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, believes that reflection on the meaning of Appomattox will help to begin to heal our own divisive wounds.  As all of you know, Laccetti is referring to that reassuring and self-congratulatory belief that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Grant’s generous terms marked the beginning of national reconciliation and healing. 

Amid this rancor and discord, the stillness at Appomattox Court House in
Virginia offers modern-day America a glimpse of how to rededicate the nation to
its founding and unifying principles. This historic site of the dramatic
surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Gen. U.S. Grant is
fittingly named – by local agencies – as the place "where the nation
reunited."

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Healing and reconciliation came at a heavy price, which included Jim Crow and continued violence against African Americans throughout the South and other parts of the country.  I refer you to the excellent article "The 1873 Battle of Colfax: Paramilitarism and Counterrevolution in Louisiana" by James K. Hogue which is posted over at Civil WarriorsLaccetti closes on what appears to be a sincere emotional reaction based on a false historical view. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, at high noon, I entered the confines of
Appomattox Court House National Park. On my car radio, I heard a DJ eulogizing
one of our soldiers who died in Iraq. Saddened to hear of yet another American
casualty, I parked my car and stepped out to get some air. All was quiet; all
was still. I thought about the sacrifices Americans have to make, and wished we
didn’t have to, but this is a price for the continuation of America’s experiment
in freedom.

I thought about all the shrillness and harshness of our public debate. I
wondered if America could be reconciled to itself or whether we might be rent
asunder by these so-called culture wars.

I embraced the stillness and breathed it in.

I wonder what we will be asked to set aside this time around for the purposes of national healing and reconciliation – whatever this means?  Will the price be ignoring that this war in Iraq was one of choice and not necessity?  Perhaps we will be asked to ignore that our government misled this nation into war?  With 2,500 brave men and women already having made the ultimate sacrifice it seems that the convenience of forgetting is too high a price to pay for this blogger. 

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A Convenient Omission

Dimitri Rotov is apparently very impressed with Donald B. Connelly’s new biography John M. Schofield and the Politics of GeneralshipHe quotes the author who asserts that “Too many writers, unfortunately, treat both the civil and military sectors as relatively distinct and monolithic entities. They presume that the military and political spheres can be readily delineated …” To anyone familiar with recent Civil War historiography this is not a new idea, but Dimitri claims that “This is not just an excellent new biography, as Steve Woodworth blurbs it, it is a new model biography for Civil War historians. Its attention to the cloud of politics enshrouding every general of Schofield’s rank is precedent setting.”  I received an advanced copy of the book some time ago, but have not had a chance to read beyond the introduction.

What is surprising is that given Dimitri’s rants about the so-called “centennialist school” he does not note that this book was published under the editorial supervision of none other than Gary Gallagher.  The book is part of the Civil War America series which is published by the University of North Carolina Press.   Gallagher, according to Rotov, is one of the most devoted of the centennialist school.  (I still have no clue what that means exactly, but let’s leave it for now.)  My guess is that this recent description of the guilty parties would easily apply to Gallagher:

A generation of young Civil War buffs who read widely in the 1960s, has come to the fore under the profound influence of Nevins’ editorial policy. Many of them are now professors sitting on two stools, doing whatever serious research is required by academic norms and lusting in their hearts to write the next blockbuster nonfiction Oprah offering. They don’t fit well into the universities and the universities tend to distrust them.

Such descriptions are absolutely laughable at best.  A quick glance at the series-list suggests that Gallagher has been on the lookout for innovative approaches to the study of the Civil War for some time.  Gallagher has been pushing for a more inclusive study of the war for over ten years.  Perhaps these rants are entertaining for those who are historiographically naive, but my guess is that most informed readers just laugh it off.  Back to Connelly’s biography and Rotov’s claim that the merging of both the military and political spheres reflects a step in a brand new direction, let me suggest that this is not the case at all.  A quick glance at my shelves includes general studies and biographies that go back to the 1950′s and has increased sharply in the last two decades.

Addendum: Apparently Dimitri did give Gallagher credit for the Connelly biography in an earlier post.  Perhaps a revision of the already vague concept of “centennial history” is in the offing.  For an excellent survey of recent literature that covers just the intersection that Dimitri references see “Blueprint For Victory: Northern Strategy and Military Policy,” in James McPherson and William J. Cooper eds. Writing the Civil War: The Quest To Understand, by you guessed it, Gary Gallagher.

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J.E.B. Stuart: Coming To An Intersection Near You

Oh how I love this kind of nonsense.  Leave it to our popular perceptions of history to bring out the goofy side of us all.  Just recently the good people of Leesburg, Virginia worried about a northerner who purchased a building in town and renamed it in honor of Joshua L. Chamberlain.  Now we move just north over the Potomac to Urbana, Maryland where some are proposing slowing down the traffic on Rt. 355 with a life-size statue of your favorite cavalier J.E.B. Stuart.  And why not, after all nine days before the battle of Antietam he did pass through and while in town attended the famous Sabers and Roses Ball which attracted all of the Southern Belles in the area.  If this project goes through I suggest that the town commission Mort Kunstler to paint the ball in all its glory and romance. 

It is sad that given the rich history of the area the best some can do is beat a dead horse.  So much for imagination.

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History Detectives

Are you tired of the History Channel’s Modern Marvels, Civil War Journal, or other assorted shows on Hitler’s last days in the bunker?  If yes, than you need to check out PBS’s History Detectives.  The show is now in its fourth season and essentially brings together four investigators who are "devoted to exploring the complexities
of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that
connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects." The History Detectives are Wes Cowan, Elyse Luray, Gwen Wright, and  Tukufu Zuberi.  In achieving these ends the team utilizes both traditional research skills such as library and archival work with modern technologies such as forensics and ballistics.  The reason the show is so successful is that it always begins with the personal inquiry and builds from there.  One or two of the detectives visit the individual or family for a quick chat about their story and object and asks what they would like to know.  From there it’s off to track down leads by going to the library or consult with an expert.  Through it all the viewer gets a snapshot of how historians and other researchers go about doing their work.  Microfiche readers are a common sight as well as dusty volumes in archives.  Best of all you watch as leads run dry and as the team juggles the difficulties of competing explanations.  All the while the personal story is being transformed into a broader narrative that connects to some important aspect of American history. 

One of last night’s episodes focused on a couple from Terre Haute, Indiana.  They were curious about an eyeglass with an image of Jefferson Davis and wanted to know if it was used by an ancestor to indicate their sympathy with the Confederacy.  Wes Cowan took the lead on this one with Elyse Luray in support.  He made his way to Lafayette, Indiana where the ancestors, Mary and Henry Wagstaff, had taken in a 14 year old Confederate prisoner of war who was quite sick.  Cowan also discovered a letter written by Henry Wagstaff indicating his Confederate sympathies.  While this established his political position it still did not confirm that the eyeglass was used as some kind of signal.  After consulting with an expert the team learned that the eyeglass dated to the 1880′s and not 1861 as the family thought.  Cowan ended up in the Atlanta History Center (a dynamite museum with an excellent Civil War exhibit) to talk to curator Gordon Jones. Jones explained that the popularity of the Davis eyeglass reflected the shifting feelings of the white South surrounding Davis and the beginning of the Lost Cause movement.  They included some wonderful old reels of Confederate reunions and mentioned organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans. 

Following the investigation the team returned to Terre Haute to report on their findings.  This is usually the best part of the episode as the investigation returns to a more personal level.  The findings are not always positive, but typically some object is returned to the individual or family which along with the findings serves to connect the local story with something much more important and meaningful. (In an episode last week a man was shown for the first time the grave of his grandfather.)

The show’s website includes a section on modern investigative technologies and teachers will want to check out suggestions on bringing the concept of the show into the classroom.  Most of you no doubt watch the show, but if not you don’t want to miss it.  Here in Charlottesville History Detectives airs on Mondays at 9:00pm – check your local listings

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