History Carnival XL

The latest History Carnival is up at Rob McDougall’s Old is the New New.  Two recent posts made the cut, including Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free and Chandra Manning on Civil War Soldiers and Slavery.  Rob singled out the latter post with a criticism that I would like to address:

A comment on Kevin’s latter post accuses Manning of reductionism, in her insistence that ideas about slavery were fundamental to the worldview of soldiers on both sides. To which I reply: Chandra is a good and brilliant friend of mine, the one in grad school who put all the rest of us to shame. I’ve seen the size of her dissertation, to be published by Knopf next year, and I assure you it is not reductive about anything.

Perhaps I couched my critique in the wrong terms, but my comment was not meant as a slight against Manning’s research.  Her argument suggests (if I’ve read it correctly) that a range of motivating factors offered by white Southerners for joining and staying in the ranks can be understood as connecting or “reducing” to slavery.  I find it to be a very interesting analysis of the primary sources.  It obviously did not mean to suggest that she had simplified what is a complex and highly debated question.

Biking Virginia: Richmond

Yesterday my wife and I traveled to the Fort Harrison branch of the Richmond National Battlefield Park for a 33-mile tour – our longest tour yet.  The weather was very pleasant with temperatures in the low 70′s and a light breeze.  While at Fort Harrison I ran into Mike Andrus who is an employee with the Park Service.  Mike and I were on a panel together last year at Virginia State University on African Americans in the Civil War. He has been working on a detailed history of U.S.C.T.’s at the battle of New Market.  We rode out onto Kingsland Rd. and made our way towards Malvern Hill which served as our first break at mile 12.  We stopped for a bit and I interpreted the site for my wife who actually knows quite a bit about the Civil War.  This was my first trip to Malvern Hill since 2002 when I walked the battlefield as part of my research on Col. John Bowie Magruder and the 57th Virginia who took part in the battle.  Magruder provides a detailed account of the battle and I was able to point out the spot to my wife where Magruder and the rest of his unit took cover during their advance.

From Malvern Hill we headed up the Willis Church Rd. and stopped for a few minutes at the Glendale Visitor Center and Cemetery.  I’ve actually never stopped at this location so I decided to take a couple photographs.  It is a very pleasant and peaceful spot; I was not aware that soldiers from other wars were also buried alongside those from the Civil War.  The nicest part of this ride is the consistently flat terrain.  Once on the Darbytown Rd it was smooth sailing for the next 12 miles.  The roads are relatively quiet, but you do need to ride defensively.  The final stretch runs along Osborn Turnpike and takes you right back to Fort Harrison.  Much of the ride provides clear views of earthworks and the last few miles takes you by Forts Harrison, Johnson, and Hoke.

Once back at our car we loaded up the bikes and spent a few minutes walking through Fort Harrison.  There were a number of reenactors camped inside the fort.  I took a few pictures as they seemed to be looking for the attention.  I struck up a conversation with one reenactor who was dressed in a Union uniform.  I commented that it was nice to see a “Yankee” down here in these parts and he smiled and said that he was actually with the 15th Virginia.  Of course, I should have known that there is always a shortage of Union reenactors, which he quickly confirmed.  He was nice enough to take a photo with me.

All in all it was a great day.  The legs were a bit sore, but I can definitely feel my stamina and energy increasing.  The successful completion of a 40-50 mile tour doesn’t seem to be that far in the near future.  I don’t know how I would organize it, but a quick look at the map suggests that a bike ride from Fort Harrison all the way up to Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor is feasible.  The route would take me right through White Oak Swamp and over the Chickahominy River at the Grapevine Bridge.  If only the nice weather sticks around for a few more weeks, anything is possible.

Making New Friends

Every so often I browse the web to see if anything I’ve said on this blog has made the rounds.  This morning I came across a wonderful reference to my teaching on a listserv:

THOSE DAMNED YANKEE SCHOOLS (and the reprobates who teach in them)

It was those damned yankee schools….” Fans of the movie “Ride With the Devil” will probably remember the scene where a southern planter/sympathizer tells a southern guerilla that the worst thing about the Yankees is their schools. They (the Yankees), round up every tot they can find and put them in their damned schools. It’s a chilling commentary, and one that is even more true today than it was in 1863.  Recently a friend alerted me to a yankee schoolteacher (living in Virginia), named Kevin Levin…

Something tells me that there are a lot of Kevin Levins in the world pontificating in classrooms all over the country. Don’t lose your kids to pond scum like this guy.  As the southern planter says, it isn’t the yankee army that will do us in, it’s those damned yankee schools….. and of course, the reprobates who teach in them.

Thanks for the vote of confidence. 

Robert Penn Warren’s Wisdom

Every once in awhile I pull out my now mangled copy of Robert Penn Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War.  I don’t think there is another Civil War book that has had more of an influence on my overall interpretation of how the war fits into our collective memory.  His wonderful distinction between the South’s "Great Alibi" and the North’s "Treasury of Virtue" continues to resonate in new books and the relentless public commentary in magazines and newspapers.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from the book.

"The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history.  Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history.  Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense."  (3)

"In defeat the Solid South was born–not only the witless automotism of fidelity to the Democratic Party but the mystique of prideful "difference," identity, and defensiveness.  The citizen of that region "of the Mississippi the bank sinister, of the Ohio the bank sinister," could now think of himself as a "Southerner" in a way that would have defied the imagination of Barnwell Rhett–or of Robert E. Lee, unionist-emancipationist Virginian.  We may say that only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality."  (14-15)

"We are right to see power, prestige, and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War.  But is is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of the mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and roading capability." (49)

"History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that.  It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond.  It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs–of the body of th e dead sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg or the tangled mass in the Bloody Lane at Antietam." (50)

"The Treasury of Virtue, which is the psychological heritage left to the North by the Civil War, may not be as comic or vicious as the Great Alibi, but it is equally unlovely.  It may even be, in the end, equally corrosive of national, and personal, integrity.  If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed.  He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history." (59)

"The Great Alibi and the Treasury of Virtue both serve deep needs of poor human nature; and if, without historical realism and self-criticism, we look back on the War, we are merely compounding the old inherited delusions which our weakness craves.  We fear, in other words, to lose the comforting automotism of the Great Alibi or the Treasury of Virtue, for if we lost them we may, at last, find ourselves nakedly alone with the problem of our time and with ourselves.  Where would we find our next alibi and our next assurance of virtue?" (76)

"The word tragedy is often used loosely.  Here we use it at its deepest significance: the image in action of the deepest questions of man’s fate and man’s attitude toward his fate.  For the Civil War is, massively, that. It is the story of a crime of monstrous inhumanity, into which almost innocently men stumbled; of consequences which could not be trammeled up, and of men who entangled themselves more and more vindictively and desperately until the powers of reason were twisted and their very virtues perverted; of a climax drenched with blood but with  nobility gleaming ironically, and redeemingly, through the murk; of a conclusion in which, for the participants at least, there is a reconciliation by human recognition." (103)

Related Posts: Are You A Civil War Buff?, Why The Civil War Still Matters, Civil War As Entertainment

Homophobia On Campus

This is a sensitive topic, but one that I’ve been wanting to comment on for some time.  I am extremely proud of my school for its hard work over the past few years to diversify our student body.  We’ve increased the numbers of students from foreign countries and other minorities from within the United States.  It makes for a much more interesting environment to work in and my class discussions have greatly improved owing to the different perspectives.  If Thomas Friedman is indeed correct that the world is becoming flatter than it is absolutely necessary that students learn how to relate and respect those with very different personal histories and cultural/religious beliefs.  We still need to do more to diversify our faculty, but I have no doubt that we will make progress.

The one area that I am still very concerned about is in the area of sexual harassment, and more specifically, the language of homophobia.  Let me start out by saying that I have no intention of getting into a discussion about whether homosexual behavior is immoral or whether it is a matter of choice.  And please don’t write me to tell me that homosexuals are condemned or welcomed by God.  I am not interested.  As to my own position I am convinced by the limited number of scientific studies that I’ve read that it is indeed "natural" and therefore the morality question is entirely misguided.  On the other hand, to reduce any individual to one category can easily be categorized as dehumanizing.  We are all complex beings and we perceive ourselves as more than our politics, race, religion, sexuality, and nationality.  [Amartya Sen explores in his latest study the pitfalls of this kind of identification in the context of nationality and religion.] In short, I don’t see any difference between our attitudes about sexuality and racial prejudices.  In fact, many of the same arguments against homosexuals were also used as justifications for Jim Crow and other racial stereotypes not too long ago.  My interests are focused on how a school community ought to handle this issue.  This post is not directed specifically at my school as I feel that schools across the country have failed to deal with this problem.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed here, both from the perspective of a school community and my role as a teacher.  I work at a school that has committed itself to educating students beyond the classroom to include character and honorable behavior.  From our "Philosophy Statement" contained in the Student Handbook:

We at St. Anne’s – Belfield believe that the transmission of knowledge, the encouragement of curiosity, the development of rational thought, and the cultivation of responsible, honorable behavior are the great ends of education. In asking students to master a specific body of knowledge, we seek not to impart knowledge alone, but to instill the lifelong habit of learning.  Although we expect our graduates to be prepared for the nation’s finest colleges and universities, our true purpose is to create a challenging yet charitable atmosphere where students gain skills necessary for both creative and disciplined thought, where they have opportunities to achieve in athletic and artistic endeavors, where they understand their responsibility as a member of a community, and where high expectations of both their personal and intellectual lives are complimented by the School’s commitment to nurturing students in the spiritual dimension of life. (my emphasis)

I wholeheartedly support this Philosophy Statement and believe that it captures the values that our faculty and staff hope to impart to our students.  As I read it, our statement commits our faculty and staff to the project of creating a safe environment where learning can take place and where students feel comfortable, protected, and respected.  I assume that this means addressing any and all problems that prevent or detract the community from attaining this broad goal.  The application of this statement seems to leave the door open for those who do believe that homosexuality is morally/religiously problematic since I assume we can agree that the security of all our students is of top priority.

How to go about addressing the problem of homophobia and its manifestations on campus, however, is not straightforward and while I am committed to addressing the assumptions that lay behind this particular set of beliefs it is not at all clear how to go about it.  If my responsibility is to educate beyond the classroom than it is not at all clear where the line is between my role and the student’s parents; notice that we probably wouldn’t even assume there is an issue here if this were about race.  We can approach this problem by considering two examples.  In one example a group of students is taunting a fellow students with inappropriate language such as "fag" or "gay."  In another example that same group of students is isolated and talking about a fellow student and using the same language.  Now I assume that it is my responsibility to intervene in the first example and take appropriate action against those students involved.  The second example, however, may not be as clear cut as there is no clear target present.  From the perspective of our Philosophy Statement, however, I do believe that action is appropriate.  First, I do not want to hear such language, and more importantly, it adds in a negative way to the overall school environment.  Failure to challenge such talk is tantamount to legitimizing it within the community.  While I favor intervention in the second example it is still unclear what the response should include.  Given my earlier concerns, am I to reprimand the students for their beliefs or the vocalizing of those beliefs on campus?  The problem is that implicit in the reprimand for vocalizing those beliefs on campus is a criticism of the content of those beliefs. 

The solution to this problem would be a very clear statement issued on behalf of the school outlining a Zero-Tolerance policy concerning sexually-harassing language of any kind.  Until then and even in lieu of I fully support the establishment of such groups as the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).  These organizations offer a safe zone for students who feel intimidated or who feel that the school has not acknowledged the problem.

A GSA is a group organized and led by students to create a safe, supportive, and accepting school environment for all. What is unique about gay-straight alliances is that they are open to any student, regardless of sexual orientation, who would like to take a stand against harassment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Unfortunately, GSAs sometimes face opposition, mostly due to misconceptions about their mission and what occurs at their meetings (and other times, simply due to homophobia).

I think it is important to acknowledge that groups such GSA would be unnecessary if sexual identity were not such an important issue for some along with the aggressive behavior that often accompanies the language.  One can easily imagine an analogous example involving a similar organization focused not on sexual identity, but race.  My guess is that few people would have a problem if it was the case that students were being harassed for racial reasons. The other point about these organizations is that their purpose is to challenge harassment by being inclusive.  I would sponsor an organization such as GSA in a heartbeat. 

It should be clear that this post raises more questions than it answers.  And as someone who is extremely sensitive to harassment of any kind I am concerned primarily with guidance from above or a statement that reflects our position as a school community.   I am uncomfortable with having to question my role in dealing with examples of homophibia on campus.  Without a statement I remain unclear as to the extent to which my responsibility as a faculty member involves challenging student’s beliefs (apart from a statement on behalf of the school).  What doesn’t change is that I do have a responsibility to protect the interests of the student body.