Dimitri’s Imaginary Lost Cause

I’ve been reading Dimitri’s so-called analysis of historians who concentrate on interpreting the evolution of the Lost Cause movement and I find it humorous at best.  I say this as someone who has published more than one article on the Lost Cause in well-regarded academic journals and who is familiar with the historiography.  In both Part 1 and Part 2 the reader is introduced to the as-yet-to-be-defined "centennialist school" and commentators such as the writer Eric Hobsbawm and the philosopher Karl Popper.  Unfortunately, nowhere does the reader get an example from the literature or the historians who concentrate on this particular area of Civil War history.  Instead we get the following jibberish:

A close reading of the attacks on Lost Cause beliefs suggest a consistently
Hobsbawmian approach. The LC is seen as a manipulation; it apparently represents
the conscious invention of traditions; it offers a calculated shading of
history-as-truth; it seems intended to serve an alibi function for the modern
white South, etc. These are the commonest lines of argument one sees in anti-LC
polemic. I’m not suggesting that our critics of the LC are Hobsbawm readers but
rather that they are manifesting a universal analytic tendency toward conspiracy
theory.

I guess one way to attack an argument is to rely on the old strawman approach – throw in some generalizations and vague terminology and stir until you come up with what appears to be an informed analysis and give the reader the sense that the enemy has been vanquished.  The problem is that the literature on the Lost Cause is much too broad to characterize in such a way.  Does Dimitri really think that he can lump into this vague characterization historians such as Gaines Foster and Charles R. Wilson, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Blight who take very different approaches to the study of the Lost Cause?  Instead of quoting extensively from Karl Popper why not try to lay out an argument by actually referring to a published study?  I’m more than happy to debate Popper or any other philosopher that is brought to bear on the study or writing of history.  But why is this necessary?  If you want to comment on Civil War history then do so.  I could go on, but what’s the point.  My guess – based on his posts – is that Dimitri isn’t sufficiently familiar with the literature anyway.   

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Book Review and Response: Peter Carmichael

H-South has posted a review of Peter Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion by Robert Tinkler.  Read Carmichael’s response to Tinkler followed by Tinkler’s response to Carmichael.

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Ken Burns

Episode 1: Prologue

Oliver Wendell Holmes – We have shared the incommunicable experiences of war.  We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.  In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire. 

Narrator – By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough.  Two great armies were converging on his farm, in what would be the first major battle of the Civil War – Bull Run or Manassas as the Confederates called it – would soon rage across the aging Virginians farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen.  Now, Mclean had moved his family away from Manassas and south and west of Richmond – out of harm’s way, he prayed, to a dusty crossroads called Appomattox Court House.  And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant, and Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

A friend and fellow historian recently sent me the entire Ken Burns Civil War transcript.  Huh….what should I do with it?

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Dwight T. Pitcaithley on Slavery and the NPS

No one has done more to advance the cause of historical interpretation of America’s Civil War battlefields than Dwight Pitcaithley.  I’ve heard him speak passionately about the importance of bringing the latest scholarship to bear on the way the National Park Service situates military analysis within the broader context of slavery and race and why it is important to do so.

I am interested in this question since my research on memory and the battle of the Crater uncovers the ways in which the presence of USCT and race were stricken from the historical record.  A few of my published articles have made it into the hands of park service guides at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, and Chris Calkins (chief historian) has consistently supported my research endeavors.  With the Civil War Sesquicentennial just a few years away there is little doubt that this issue will continue to generate heated debate.  I hope that my work on one battlefield at least adds some relevant background to the discussion.  In his article “‘A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War” which recently appeared in the edited volume, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, (The New Press, 2006). Pitcaithley outlines the arguments both for and against addressing the role of slavery and race on the battlefield.

One of the most common arguments against addressing slavery is the claim that the NPS was not given the assignment to educate the public or the causes of the war.  One writer to the NPS declared: “Why and how these two armies got to that battlefield is irrelevant at the point of the battle. The only thing that matters at that point is WHAT happened and not why.  Allow the NPS to deal with the facts about the battle and leave the why to the educators.”  This is an all-too common argument, but what is striking is the arbitrary defining of “education” to include events on the battlefield and not any causal question of why there is fighting at all.  Pitcaithley reminds his readers that both the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and legislation such as the 1935 Historic Sites Act and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 establish a mandate to educate the public in a way that goes beyond the movements of armies.  The obvious point here is that the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, site of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention (Seneca Falls), Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller National Historical Park, and the Little Big Horn National Battlefield Park all provide its visitors with a broader causal overview of what happened.  Given this fact, it seems reasonable to suggest that the burden of showing why Civil War sites should be the exception to this rule is the job of the NPS’s detractors.

Pitcaithley does an excellent job tracing the origin of the reconciliation argument that so many opponents of this new mandate support.  As many of you know, veterans’ reunions and other forces at work in the late 19th century left an interpretation of the war that steered clear of more controversial issues such as slavery and secession and the way that slavery and race shaped the war itself.  The emphasis on shared values such as honor encouraged and made possible sectional reunion by the turn of the 20th century.  More importantly, and as Pitcaithley makes clear, this interpretive agenda supported “political agendas and became powerful vehicles for constructing personal as well as national identities.”  This is an important point, but I wish Pitcaithley had taken the argument one step further.  While he makes the obvious point that the “Lost Cause” interpretation was not void of a political and racial agenda he does not situate the NPS within the evolution or as a factor in the overall success of this view.  As I show in my own work on the battle of the Crater, by 1936 this deeply embedded Lost Cause view had become the standard interpretation of the battle.  Any acknowledgment of the role of USCT in the battle or the reaction of white Southerners had been almost entirely erased from national memory.  And this is the interpretation that the NPS adopted when they incorporated the Crater site into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936.  It is not simply “politically correct” or to engage in “revisionist” history to acknowledge slavery and race at the Crater, it is historical necessity if the hope is to get the story right.

While Pitcaithley is at the forefront in this movement to revise the NPS’s interpretation, no one has done more to challenge it than the late Jerry Russell.  Russell’s favored arguments are easy to dispose of.  While his arguments appear to be more focused on the visitor’s time it is not difficult to surmise his motivation: “You only get so much of the visitors’ time if…if you add to the script, you must take something out of the script.  And what they are taking out is honor, honor to the battle, honor to the men.”  This is a weak argument, though one that is commonly employed.  First, there is an assumption that there is a mutually exclusive choice between honor and causation.  I’m not even sure it’s the job of the park service to convince its visitors of some moral conclusion surrounding the participants of the battle.  I wouldn’t dream of doing this in my classroom.  I’ve never visited Pearl Harbor, but my guess is that guides are quite capable of discussing the background to the attack without losing anything about what actually took place on the morning of December 7, 1941.  The most significant weakness with Russell’s argument is the assumption that introducing slavery and race somehow challenges the moral integrity of the individual soldier.  As I’ve stated before on this blog armies did not just fall out of the sky to engage in the kind of horrific violence that so many Civil War buffs find entertaining.  If I were to visit a battlefield in Vietnam (imagine for a moment that it was operated by the NPS) I would want to know a bit about why Americans were sent thousands of miles away to fight.  Does it follow that a discussion of “containment” and the “domino theory” imply that every American soldier fought in support of such a foreign policy?  Of course not.

As we approach the sesquicentennial the toughest challenge will be to more fully integrate the Civil War scholarship of the past 20 years into more casual settings.  This will be difficult because the goals of the academy, heritage association, and more common Civil War enthusiasts often diverge.  Many Civil War enthusiasts who are interested primarily in the battlefield are put off by discussions of race.  They find the discussion to be uncomfortable or simply don’t care.  And others, as discussed above, see the discussion as a threat to their preferred interpretation of the war.  I would point out that the discussion must center on the historical merits of the broader discussion and not simply on preference.

Finally, we need to revise our popular notions of historical revision.  This is particularly troubling within Civil War communities as much of these discussions take place in a broader political context.  Revisions are often seen as politically motivated.  It is incredibly discouraging to engage people who claim to be interested in the past who fail to see the importance of critical discourse and alternative interpretations as a way to advance our knowledge of the past.

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A Long Weekend

Well I just finished calculating my final grades and completing student comments.  Apart from a few faculty meetings next week it looks like I am home free.  The end of the year typically brings that exhilarating feeling probably not unlike the one we felt when we were students.  The summer seems endless and one is given a break from having to think about lesson plans and other problems that teachers face in the course of the year.

One of my colleagues likes to think of the summer as a long weekend.  June is like Friday.  The weekend is ahead of you and for just a brief amount of time you can focus on something else.  Stay up all night if you choose.  Catch up with loved ones and other passions/interests.  Monday seems like it will never arrive.  The first half of July is like Saturday morning.  You can sleep late and think about what the afternoon will look like.  Go on the afternoon road trip and perhaps stay overnight somewhere out of town.  The second half is like Saturday night.  Your not quite sure whether you should stay up too too late as you know you will have to get up early the next day.  August is more difficult to handle as it is just like Sunday.  Should you get up later and watch the morning talk shows or get into your office and prepare lessons for the upcoming week?  The second half of August is like Sunday afternoon and evening.  "Oh shit…the new school year is upon me and there is nothing I can do about it." 

Since it’s only Friday I want to take a moment to wish my fellow teachers a safe and enjoyable summer break.  You deserve it!

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