Senator Jim Webb’s Confederacy

Seth Gitell of the New York Sun has an interesting analysis of Jim Webb’s non-fiction work on the "Old South" and Confederacy.  According to Gitell, while the Allen camp raised issues about Webb’s published work regarding women, they focused on the wrong issues.  They should have attempted to balance criticism of Allen’s identification with the Confederate battleflag and the Confederacy with Webb’s 2004 book, Born Fighting: How the Scotch-Irish Shaped America.  According to Gitell:

As a window on the mind of a rising politician in the Democratic Party, it is illuminating and perplexing. Mr. Webb refers to "bloodlines" and ethnic "DNA." Such talk is more in keeping with the Old World, where the character of an individual rested in the volkish notion of blood. He writes in broad ethnic stereotype, reminiscent of 19th-century readers that elucidated the nature of the Irish, the British, the French, and the Jew. He has words of praise for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. He rationalizes the position of the Confederate soldier and places the history of the Confederate flag in a heroic context. There’s no ideological litmus test in the Senate, of course, and senatorial campaign contests should not be reduced to the politically correct absurdities of the American college campus. None of the excerpts demands an immediate call to the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Even so, they represent thinking most liberals would have already denounced if uttered by a supporter of the Iraq war. Having said all that, it is notable that the usual suspects — most of them within the Democratic Party — are all so silent…

Here are a few excerpts from Webb’s Born Fighting:

That warrior ethic, which would carry the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy a very long way, came from the long traditions of service that had begun so many centuries before in Scotland and the north of Britain. The Confederate battle flag itself was drawn from the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland and the unbending spirit of the Southern soldier found its energies in the deeds of the past just as strongly as it looked up to the leaders of the present. These were the direct descendants of William Wallace’s loyal followers of five centuries before.

Scots-Irish "suffered 70 percent killed or wounded in the Civil War and were still standing proud in the ranks at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered — but in today’s politically correct environment this means that they were the ‘racist’ soldiers of the Nazi-like Confederacy.

Among others [Scots-Irish Confederate generals] included … the unparalleled Nathan Bedford Forrest, a semiliterate who proved to be a master of maneuver and improvisation, and who defeated every West Point general he faced."

Well, it looks like someone read their Grady McWhiney.  I have no idea what Webb is getting at with his reference to a "Nazi-like Confederacy."  Apart from a few people who exactly is comparing the Confederacy and the Nazis?  As long as Webb is not placed on a committee that is responsible for writing history we should be o.k.

Is Russel Beatie The New Douglas S. Freeman?

There is an interesting thread over at the Civil War Forum about Russel Beatie’s latest volume in his multi-volume study of the Army of the Potomac.  The thread starts with a post by historian Jim Morgan who offers his own critique of McClellan Takes Command: Sept 1861 – Feb 1862, which is vol. 2 in the series.  Volumes 1 and 2 were published by Da Capo while the next volume is slated for release by Savas-Beatie.  I think that is correct.  Scroll down to post 14 of 18 to read historian John Hennessy’s very critical review of volume 1.  While Morgan points out multiple factual errors Hennessy notes both specific factual mistakes as well as more significant interpretive and historiographical problems.  In short, it looks like this series is a disaster.  I have no plans to read these books since I stay away from books published by Da Capo (unless they are those excellent reprints) as well as other small independent presses.  Of course there are specific titles that must be worth reading, but I don’t have the time or energy to sift through it all. 

Sounds like a number of people will be looking to see what Savas-Beatie does with volume 3.  Given Hennessy’s review of volume 1 and Morgan’s review of volume 2 it is difficult to imagine any significant changes in the works.  The publisher can at least correct the grammatical and factual errors if indeed they utilize a sufficiently strong peer review process.  Oh, and by the way, David Woodbury confirmed that the Beatie in Savas-Beatie is none other than Russel Beatie.

As far as I can tell the standard by which multi-volume works must be compared with is Gordon Rhea’s Overland Campaign study.

“Unwinding” Racism

Every Wednesday our school holds what we call "Community Forum."  It lasts for about 20 minutes and allows students to share their thoughts about issues related to school and beyond.  Students are asked to stand when they speak and identify themselves to the rest of the Upper School.  Faculty are also encouraged to take part.  Most of the issues are raised by a small committee of students.  Last week they decided to tackle the issue of race.  We decided to show scenes from the move Crash and to break up into smaller groups to discuss it.  We showed the movie last Wednesday and today broke up into small groups this morning for a 25-minute discussion. 

I was with a group of about 15 students.  It will come as no surprise when I say that these discussions are difficult to get off the ground.  Many students feel defensive or uncomfortable while others struggle for the right language.  We are a small private school that is predominantly white and upper middle to upper class. 

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of our discussion.  While we did not spend much time talking about the movie we did talk about the way race shapes our individual perceptions and its manifestations in the Charlottesville area.  Not everyone talked, but enough students shared their ideas.  One student in particular, who was a student in my AP American History course last year, made some very interesting points.  She admitted to being aware of the ways race has shaped American history and her local community, but wondered how we might begin to "unwind race."  For some reason this has stuck with me the entire day.  It’s perfect.  Most people in the group were willing to admit that we learn to see our world through the lens of race and this lends itself to the idea of being wound-up in it

I guess the main reason I like it so much is that it helps explain why I am so interested in the history of race in this country.  I grew up just outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  As some of you may know Atlantic City is on an island along with the smaller towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport.  I grew up in Ventnor.  While Atlantic City was predominantly black my town along with the two others was white.  What I still find hard to believe is that up until I attended high school I never really interacted with black people.  My parents took me and my brother to the boardwalk and the amusement piers, but I don’t remember that many black families.  And all of this took place on an island in southern New Jersey.

My own critical approach to the study of how race has shaped American history has in large part been part of a personal process of trying to "unwind" race from my own personal history.   In the end it comes back to a kind of childhood curiosity or sense of wonder about the racial dynamics of my own home and how I was wound without even knowing it at an early age.   

Daily Press Reviews American Civil War Museum at Tredegar

There is a fairly lengthy review of the ACW Museum at Tredegar in the Virginia Daily Press written by Jacqueline Trescott.  There are a few interviews, one of which is with Raymond Boone who is the editor of the Richmond Free Press:

"This is ridiculous. Number one, it puts villains on the same plane as American heroes, Lincoln and Douglass," says Raymond Boone, editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press. "When you start celebrating the Confederacy, you are talking about terrorists. It is normal to celebrate a just cause. It is abnormal to celebrate a losing and unjust cause."

I would venture to guess that Boone has not seen the new exhibit.  As a result we could dismiss Boone’s criticism as overly emotional; this however would be a mistake.  What it suggests is that African Americans remain very defensive and suspicious of how the Civil War has been and continues to be interpreted.  As I’ve said a number of times, the ACW Museum at Tredegar has done a wonderful job of putting slavery and the African-American experience back where it belongs within the broad narrative.  Still, the ACW Museum is going to need to do a great deal of outreach to bring African Americans to the museum.  Fortunately, their exhibit offers a rich spectrum of possibilities.

Richmond Daily Dispatch Now Online

The Richmond Daily Dispatch is now accessible on-line.  The work has been overseen by University of Richmond History Professor Robert Kenzer and Librarian James Gwin.  The project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Two years ago I took part in a day-long meeting with roughly 50 other historians and teachers to discuss the direction of the project; it is nice to see it come to fruition.  Plans also call for the digitizing of the Richmond census which will make this an even more useful research tool.  From the Richmond-Time Dispatch article:

The Daily Dispatch, one of four predecessors of The Times-Dispatch, was
chosen because its circulation was equal to those of all other Richmond papers
combined, it was independent of any political party and it was able to continue
publishing throughout the war.  It also contained news from the entire East Coast, reprinting articles from
distant newspapers and even the letters of captured Union soldiers.

Plans also include digitizing the Richmond census and linking to other databases that contain relevant material.  I’ve already used this in class and the search engine works well so check it out.