Book Reviews And The Blogger’s Responsibility: A Follow Up

Mark Grimsley referenced my post on the recent distribution of three Simon and Schuster books to the Civil War blogging community.  Mark didn’t offer any commentary which is disappointing because I am interested in his thoughts.  The blogosphere may be the the most attractive place for publishers to publicize their new titles.  Academic journals tend to take time to publish reviews and their readership is typically very small.  The blogosphere is fast and attracts the widest readership; best of all, the simplest of references will suffice to bring the title to the attention of thousands.  As I was perusing the latest issue of North and South magazine I noticed a large advertisement for Fred Ray’s new book on Confederate sharpshooters.  There were six endorsements of the book, including one by fellow CW blogger Drew Wagenhoffer.  This raised the question of whether publishers must first get permission to use a passage from a post for their advertisements.  I remember Drew’s review of the book and know from reading his blog that he was in contact with the author, and Ray’s book was privately published.  Why does this matter?  Well, if a publisher does not need permission then I am inclined to be much more defensive in my assessment of the book.  I’ve had my own published book reviews manipulated to the point where I don’t even recognize the statement as my own.  Imagine what could be done with a hastily written post? 

Now that I think about it, perhaps all that needs to be done is to copyright my blog.  Duh.

Two Articles on American Civil War Musuem

The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star includes two articles by Gwen Woolf on the American Civil War musuem.  The first is a review of the museum and the second is about Sara Poore who works as the Educational Director for the museum. The musueum review includes a few quotes from me at the very end:

"Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretion of the
Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting," writes Kevin M.
Levin, an instructor of American history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in
Charlottesville who has written extensively on the Civil War. Levin reviewed the
new museum Oct. 15 in his blog "Civil War Memory" (

"This is an intellectually demanding museum," says Levin, adding that Civil
War enthusiasts looking for battlefield interpretation may not have patience
with the museum’s emphasis on the complexities of home front, politics and,
especially, race.

The museum forces people to "step back and question their assumptions," Levin
says. "It forces people to think about issues they tend to steer clear of."

As I’ve written a number of times on this blog, the museum is well worth your time so head on down to Richmond and support this worthy endeavor.

Interpreting Slave Narratives: An Assessment

My AP classes really did a good job with the two WPA slave narratives mentioned the other day.  While a few of them pieced together that they were reading two accounts by the same person, they held back from spoiling it for everyone else.  We analyzed the two sources and the students were asked to weigh the accounts based on their reading of the chapter in their textbook on slavery.  As I mentioned earlier, the book we are using is Give Me Liberty! by Eric Foner and the chapter on slavery is one of the most sophisticated treatments of the subject to be found in a textbook.  Once they understood that both interviewees were the same person we talked about how the interviewer could have influenced the narrative.  In the case of Jessie Butler students wanted to know her age, where she lived, her racial views, etc.  In the case of Susan Hamilton we discussed her interests in telling a story that sounded very much like the paternalistic accounts that slaveholders told themselves during the antebellum period.  Did she hope to receive additional funds from the government or perhaps she worried that a negative portrayal of slavery would have placed her or her family in danger. All in all the lesson went very well.

You can find these interviews online at the Library of Congress. I would also recommend After The Fact: The Art of Historical Detection by James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle for interpretation.  This is an incredibly useful book for the classroom as it takes you through various historiographical and interpretive challenges.  Chapters include the uses of psychohistory, selection of evidence, the role of mass and photography in shaping popular perception, and the use of models in history.  The only drawback is the price, which stands at a whopping $60 if you buy it new.  Amazon lists some used copies and you should be able to find an old edition at a decent used book store.

Remembering Lt. Stephen Atkins Swails

Unfortunately we don’t see this particular image often enough.  If a black Civil War soldier makes the news it is usually the result of an SCV chapter trying to make a point about loyal black Confederates. Descendants500  Well, perhaps a few happened to find themselves on the front lines given that thousands of black slaves supported the various Confederate armies in various capacities.  In this photograph the descendants of Lt. Stephen Atkins Swails of the 54th Massachusetts stand alongside blue-clad reenactors along with a flag (on the far left) that belonged as much to Swails as it did any white soldier.  With the help of amateur historian Billy Jenkinson, Swails’ remarkable story is now part of the history books.  Following the war Swails remained in South Carolina and was eventually elected to the state legislature as a Republican.  Michele Hewitt Webster, Swails’ great-great-granddaughter had this to say:

"I think that he’d have to be disappointed that what he had done in this country, that his history — the history of our people — were not included along with everything else."

His political career was over by 1877 following an assassination attempt and the end of Reconstruction.  Swails secured a job in Washington, D.C. and died in 1900.  With the help of the African-American Historical Alliance a five-foot tall blue granite memorial was recently unveiled at Swails’ grave-site. 

Civil War Memory Nominated For Best Individual Blog (Cliopatria)

Thanks to fellow Revise and Dissent blogger Alun Salt for nominating this blog for a Cliopatria Award.  I was so impressed with the nomination that I decided to post it here.  Given the competition out there I don’t have a chance in hell of winning, but it is nice to know that there are people out there who think so highly of this project. 

I think a good blog is going to be regularly updated, thoughtful and
capable of surprising the reader, so my vote goes to Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory.

All I ‘know’ about the American Civil War is what I’ve heard in largely
dire documentaries. The ones where someone with a croaky Southern
accent reads something like "Things got so bad we wuz pulling our own
teeth to use them fer shot, but that didn’t matter cuz we wuz fahting
for Liberty."

Kevin’s blog makes the Civil War a much more textured and interesting
event than the cartoon version that we get on the other side of the
Atlantic. You can dip into any week in the archive and pull out a gem.
With no effort at all I can point you at Remembering Memorial Day, Blacks in Gray or "Enough is Enough" or Confederate Military Executions. He’s also very good on the process of making history. From just this week we have Balancing Interpretation, Celebration, and Entertainment In Public Spaces, How Wide Is The Gap Between Professional Civil War Historians And The General Public? and Interpreting Slave Narratives.

The war may have been the Union versus the Confederacy, but reading
Kevin’s blog makes it clear that the modern United States has its
history on all sides of the war.

I will eventually nominate my favorite blogs, but there are so many that I don’t even know where to start.  So head on over to Cliopatria and say something nice about your favorite bloggers.  They deserve the kind words.