There are certain things that a New Jersey boy who grew up on the ocean will never understand. Within the context of Civil War culture it is the obsession that many have with commemorating and reenacting battles. I’ve never seen a reenactment and I remember feeling very uncomfortable during the one battlefield commemoration that I attended a few years back. I have great respect for this nation’s military and the people who serve, but when it comes to the Civil War I steer clear of any celebration – irregardless of whether it is directed at Union or Confederate themes. For me the war comes alive in the scholarship of a large and growing number of talented Civil War historians. From the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.
An organization is seeking to bring attention to the Battle of Monterey, which they say was the second-largest battle fought in Pennsylvania during the Civil War and the only battle fought on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. John Miller, a Civil War historian for the Emmitsburg (Md.) Historical Society, said the tale of the battle largely was lost as the Blue Ridge Summit area was converted into a summer resort town, then became home to railroad activity and mining. Now, Civil War buffs, including Miller, are joining with the One Mountain Foundation and a Pennsylvania tourism initiative to better highlight Blue Ridge Summit’s role in the war. “This is an undeveloped (battle) site,” said Gary Muller, chairman of the One Mountain Foundation. The group hopes to draw attention to the area by listing Blue Ridge Summit in promotional paperwork for a three-day Civil War Trails Discovery Weekend in Pennsylvania.
Is this just an extreme example of appropriating a bit of local history or is it a matter of economic development. My guess is that Miller and others have a sincere interest in preserving their little corner of the Civil War. Still, I don’t really get it. Are there any other countries that obsess over their Civil War battlefields like we do? Is there a Western Front Preservation Society in France? Is there any reason to judge the actions of these devoted preservationists as going above and beyond what reason dictates as worth saving or is it a purely subjective choice? Seems to me that with the rate of development in places like northern Virginia we are going to have to address these questions.
I just finished transcribing the last of the letters by Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, Hagood’s Regiment. The collection consists of roughly 250 letters written between 1859 and September 1864. I first came across the collection while doing research at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. John Coski suggested that I think about editing the collection and I am glad that I eventually came around to it. The next step will be the editing of the letters and the writing of an introduction. While I’ve read numerous published and unpublished collections I have to say that Winsmith’s letters are a real gold mine. He is an excellent writer and he has a keen sense of how events on the battlefield connected to both the home front and politics.
He remained optimistic of Confederate victory as late as his wounding outside Petersburg at the end of September 1864. His descriptions of the battlefield are quite vivid; a seven-page letter written during the height of the battles around Spotsylvania will be worth the price of the book alone. We still need more research on mid-grade officers and their responsibilities both in maintaining unit cohesion and as a liaison with their families back home. Winsmith worked hard to balance his role as disciplinarian and commander with his responsibility to comfort and look out for his men.
A planned trip this summer to Spartanburg, South Carolina for research and a tour of the Winsmith home, including the still-standing slave quarters, will hopefully result in enough background information for a history of the family. This collection should prove very attractive for historians. From what I can tell this collection has not been used in any published accounts in recent years. My only explanation is that historians have bypassed the Museum of the Confederacy on their research rounds through Richmond. If true, it is unfortunate as the museum’s collection is incredibly rich. Historians of both the Western and Eastern theaters will find Winsmith’s letters to be of great value.
I missed this one. In October of last year a Faculty Chair in American Civil War History was created at Dickinson College in memory of Brian Pohanka. Pohanka studied history at the school and graduated in 1977. Matthew Pinsker is the first incumbent of the chair. Here is what he had to say:
“Brian was a legend in my field. He brought a richer, more accurate understanding of the Civil War to millions. I am honored by the prospect of trying to continue his important work both inside and outside the classroom.”
I can’t think of a better way to honor Pohanka’s scholarship and love for American history. Click here to read more from the article.
This week I will be teaching Reconstruction. I am putting primary documents together, slides, and segments of movies, including Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind. We will analyze both how Americans have traditionally remembered the period and the actual history. It’s always a challenge teaching this section. My approach is to begin by laying out the challenges of Reconstruction for all parties involved and to make clear that the question of the status of the newly-freed slaves and the role of the federal government constituted an immediate problem and one that was not predicted only a few years earlier. I emphasize the steps that African Americans took to secure their freedom even as the Republican party gradually pulled back by the mid-1870′s. This approach is not intended to castigate white Americans for the eventual abandonment of Military Reconstruction, but to reveal the extent to which African Americans were able to engage in political action on the grassroots level and within individual state legislatures. That means on one level the story of Reconstruction becomes a heroic tale of black Americans striving to assert themselves in challenging the racial boundaries to which civil liberties applied.
We will end this section by reading through an article by either David Blight or Ed Ayers. Of course, Blight emphasizes the process by which white Americans shaped their history to the point where it minimized black political action during the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the other hand, given the conflict in Iraq we may read an article by Ed Ayers which explores our collective belief that we can export reconstruction to other parts of the world. I am leaning towards the Ayers article. Perhaps our amnesia regarding the deep-seated racial and political divisions after the Civil War is what allows this administration to shape its foreign policy in a vacuum. Our own experience at reconstruction was less than successful, which raises the question of why we should have any reason to believe that it can be accomplished in parts of the world where the divisions are even more deeply rooted.
From across the ocean the Guardian
offers a short review of recent Civil War novels, including E. L. Doctorow’s, The March.
I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read much fiction in recent years so I can’t comment on the titles reviewed. What is interesting to me is the way in which the reviewer sets the scene for Doctorow’s story of Sherman’s “March to the Sea” following the capture of Atlanta in 1864:
The March by EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and many other novels, follows the brutal progress of General William T Sherman’s army of 60,000 Union soldiers through the South in 1864. After setting Atlanta ablaze, they marched to the sea, then north through the Carolinas. Everywhere they slaughtered troops and livestock, burned cities, villages and plantations, and lived off the land. Their blithe disregard for civilians established a pattern that dogs American forces to this day.
I assume that remembering an embellished or exaggerated version of Sherman’s march makes for better fiction even for our friends across the ocean. Again, I can’t comment on Doctorow’s narrative, but this reviewer seems to view the subject of the story through the lens of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Few will doubt that Sherman’s march highlighted the final transition in Union policy to total war, but it should be remembered that this shift did not usher in a brand new style of warfare. As Mark Grimsley has demonstrated in his book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Policy Towards Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, the tenets of “hard war” policy had a rich history going back to the medieval ages. Grimsley also shows through an analysis of letters and diaries from Sherman’s men that very few commented on the march as a shift in policy. Rather the war had evolved from “limited” to “pragmatic” to “total” war policy. Both sides engaged in operations which collapsed the distinction between civilians and the battlefield. Of course Sherman’s policies stand out since much of the war was fought in the South. This is a wonderful example of how a certain perception of the past becomes ingrained in our collective memory thus bringing about a sense of “seeming understanding.”