Onward Christian Soldiers

The blogger over at Pinstripe Press takes issue in an open letter to the Southern Legal Resource Center with "attacks" against those who wish to celebrate the virtues of Southern Christian warriors such as "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.  The blogger who has also authored biographies of these two figures argues that, "For years, liberal scholars have referred to the Confederate States of America as a “hypocrisy” and questioned how a country fighting for independence could also deny that same freedom and liberty to it’s own citizens held in bondage."  The writer goes on to say:

My first two books, “Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall” and “Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart” were written and published as a testament to the Christian character and patriotism of these two men. I firmly believe that we can learn by their example, as it was these traits that ultimately gave them the strength to perform on the battlefield with such courage and conviction.

Let me start by suggesting that unless specific examples can be raised in support of the first point re: "liberal scholars" than it should be seen as a strawman argument.  I have a pretty good grasp of the secondary literature and I’ve never come across a claim of "hypocrisy."  What I have read, however, is a concerted effort to reintroduce the way that slavery both shaped the Antebellum South, the secession debates, and the course of the war.  As anyone who has studied Civil War historiography knows such a focus has been lacking within academic circles through the 1950’s and within more popular circles to this day. 

I find the claims that Jackson, Stuart and the rest of the boys constituted some kind of Christian Warrior society to be much more interesting.  First, it seems reasonable to ask whether the author believes that one can be considered "Christian" and a slaveowner in today’s world.  Does the ownership of another human being contradict the teachings of the Bible?  We know that Jackson owned slaves and there is evidence to suggest that he sold at least two slaves for financial reasons after marrying for the second time.  I should say that I understand that this was not necessarily a contradiction in the mid-19th Century South, but that is a different point altogether.  In thinking critically about the past we should try to the best of our ability as historians not to engage in presentism.  That said, the author seems much more interested in judging these individuals outside any historical context.  As a historian I have to admit that I am simply not interested in these questions.  As I suggested in an earlier post I don’t really understand Jackson’s behavior or his religious world view.  I’ve read both James I. Robertson’s biography of Jackson and Emory Thomas’s study of Stuart and I have to admit little success in penetrating the psychological surface.  Of course, that’s the challenge of doing and thinking critically about the past.  Jackson’s attitude towards Federal prisoners and his unshaken belief in the righteousness of the cause seem to have much in common with our popular perceptions of religious extremists in other parts of the world today.  It is also extremely difficult to peel back the layers of postwar storytelling that came to shape our popular perceptions of Jackson and others.

I would also like to know from the author why he makes no mention of Northern Christian warriors.  On his view, is it possible to be a Christian warrior from the North who fought to end slavery on religious grounds?  And what happens if we take one from each side and stick them in a room together.  If we are to judge them simply on moral grounds (we’ve taken off our historian’s hat for a moment) how should we proceed and what should our conclusions be given that for most reasonable christians today slavery is viewed as a contradiction of Biblical teachings. 

I agree with the author that it is important to preserve our history for future generations.  After all, that’s my job as a historian and as a teacher.  That said, I am not necessarily interested in steering my students to praise or blame anyone from the past.  My job is to give them the tools and the foundation for which to make those decisions on their own.

Note: The SLRC is also using H.K. Edgerton who was mentioned in yesterday’s post.  He is definitely making the rounds. If you are interested in reading more about the role of religion during the Civil War you may want to look at The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout, and ed. Richard M. Miller et.al., Religion and the American Civil War


John Bowie Magruder’s Civil War or What’s on a Man’s Mind?

Today I presented a talk on Colonel John Bowie Magruder for the Albemarle County Historical Society and the local Senior Center.  I had a great time.  It was a small audience, but they were enthusiastic and they asked insightful questions.  Magruder was a graduate of the University of Virginia in 1860 and served as Colonel of the 57th Virginia Infantry before his mortal wounding at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  His letters are housed in Special Collections at UVA.  There are around 25 letters and they cover most of his time in the army.  They are well written and touch on a number of important themes of historical interest.  Back in 2002 I published a lengthy article on Magruder in the Magazine of Albemarle History which won its Rawlings Prize for best essay.  I am currently revising the article for publication in one of the popular Civil War magazines.  Here are a few selections from the letters.

March 9, 1862
Fort Dillard, N.C. along the Blackwater River

"The country is very thinly inhabited and save and except the troops now with us we rarely see a face – until to-day I had not seen a ladies face in all this region of country – to-day however being Sunday several dilapidated looking females with their several escorts walked [into] our camp on the way to the river." 

May 18, 1862
On the march through Jerusalem to rejoin the rest of the Confederate army around Richmond

[Describing the mayor’s daughter] "She was about 5 feet 5 inches high, black hair and eyes brunette, beautiful teeth and mouth – very agreeable, quite fast, and draped in a beautiful gown – She gave me a beautiful bouquet, which I was so ungallant as to throw into the ditch about a mile and a half from Jerusalem – [It was a] reminder that I had ever been in the least degree sentimental in my life."

December 4, 1862
Fredericksburg – describes the home of a Dr. Smith where he spent some time recovering from "bilious attack"

"He had quite a pretty daughter of about 18 summers, who had never been much into society, with whom I amused myself a good deal."

May 22, 1863
Outside of Richmond – Describes his visit to Richmond and the praise he received from friends owing to his first stint at independent command during the Suffolk campaign

"I visited Richmond very often, spent every cent of money I could lay my hands on, visited many of my old Richmd. friends, most of whom I found had married, formed many new acquaintances and enjoyed myself in every way – Nearly every lady had heard of my fight with the yankees on the White Marsh Road near Suffolk, and all had some nicely turned compliment to pay me with regard to it, which was of course very gratifying."

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“Rebel Yell” Grows Fainter

Turns out that a relatively new chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is having difficulty getting the good word out.  Grayson Jennings, founder of the Edmund Ruffin Fire Eaters Camp No. 3,000 hopes to "oust" Waite Rawls who is the Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and in his place appoint Allen M. Ferguson.  It is difficult to pinpoint the problem with Waite, but I suspect that he is perceived as too moderate given the goals of the SCV.  Ferguson was slated to become chairman of the Valentine History Center in Richmond when it was discovered that he flew a Confederate battle flag in front of his home.  This was perceived as a conflict with the goals of the History Center, but apparently just right for a position as president of the Edmund Ruffin chapter. 

Jennings is also utilizing the assistance of one H.K. Edgerton this summer to get the good word out.  Who is H.K. Edgerton?  Edgerton is from Asheville, North Carolina and a former head of the local chapter of the NAACP.  He is scheduled to appear at the Third Annual Dixie Days which is set to take place on June 10 and 11 in Hanover County.  (Please don’t ask me for additional event information.)  Edgerton decided to leave the organization to "embrace his southern roots":

Being a black civil-rights proponent and a Confederate sympathizer aren’t mutually exclusive, Edgerton says: “Me being black, there are plenty of issues on the table — the likelihood of being poor, dropping out of school, dealing drugs, getting locked up. But my social mobility has got nothing to do with the Confederate flag or the South.”

While I have no idea what Edgerton means here it is disturbing to see another example of an overly simplistic identification with the past.  Why is it that we reduce the Southern past to the four years of the Confederacy?  Isn’t there a much richer history that an African-American can "embrace" or does Edgerton have some kind of ulterior motive in aligning himself with this group? 


Wicked Spring

I finally had a chance to see the movie Wicked Spring. This is a low-budget production that managed to win a few independent film festival awards.  The movie tells the story of six soldiers, including three Confederate and three Federal soldiers, who spend the night together following the first day’s fighting at the Wilderness in May 1864.  The gist of it is that they don’t realize they are encamped with the enemy.

I can’t say that this was the most exciting or even interesting war movie of late, but given the crap that has been produced in recent years it is a breadth of fresh air.  The battle scenes were done effectively in that you actually see men shot in battle.  Think about it, how many men in Gods and Generals are actually shot?  Yes, many fell down in dramatic fashion, but did you actually see anything penetrate clothing or skin?  The director vividly captured the confusion of battle in the Wilderness and the perspective of the individual soldier.  A few of the battle scenes reminded me of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  Again, you have to remember that this is an independent film with a limited budget of $500,000.  No Ted Turner behind this one.

The most interesting part of this movie, however, are the scenes that take place overnight once these six men have decided to spend the night together.  There is a very touching scene between a Union and Confederate soldier which involves the former writing a letter for the latter.  The Confederate soldier has kept a pile of what appears to be pristine envelopes and letters owing to the fact that he can’t read.  This soldier dictates a very emotional letter home to his “sweetheart.”  There is nothing contrived or pretentious about these scenes.  No one mentions Grant, Lee, Lincoln or Davis and no one is debating what the war was about.  What you are left with is a group of tired soldiers who are trying to take advantage of a few quiet hours before hell breaks loose again in the morning.  It’s nice to see that the Civil War can be taken seriously in movies.

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Whose Civil War Is It?

Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent

It’s hard not to feel like the ugly duckling of this group.  After all I write about the American Civil War and as everyone knows that’s not serious history.  Of course I exaggerate, but I do so to raise what I think are interesting issues surrounding the place of professional historical studies within our popular and civic culture.  Civil War history occupies an interesting position that straddles both the academic and popular realms of historical inquiry, but it does so at a price.  There is an uneasy tension between professionally trained Civil War historians, non-academic historians, and consumers of historical studies.  This relationship is worth exploring as it sheds light on the challenges/difficulties and rewards involved in the increased interaction between the academy and the general public.

On the face of it and from a very personal perspective I value the relative ease with which academic historians and non-academics interact on so many important levels.  It may not be much of a stretch to suggest that Americans feel as if they have a right to be Civil War historians.  The events surrounding the Civil War are seared into our national psyche in a way that makes it easy to empathize in different directions.  In short, there is a sense of ownership of the past that drives our curiosity to both read and explore on our own.  While this is not unique to the field I am hard pressed to find another area of history where this connection translates to such an extent into publishing and other academic pursuits.  The rewards are clearly visible: more individuals exploring various aspects of the Civil War stands to broaden what we know.  It should be pointed out that most non-academic historians research strictly military aspects of the war, but this should not be frowned upon in any way.  After all, it was a war.  Historians such as Gordon Rhea, Harry Pfanz, Stephen Sears, Robert Krick, and William Marvel have all produced first-rate studies of the war.  Perhaps no one has done more to bring the war to more Americans than Ken Burns.  We can and should quibble with his specific interpretation, but the point is that thought-provoking presentations of this crucial moment in American history can be done by individuals outside the academy.  Professional historians should and have embraced this fact to a limited extent.  As I type the University of Virginia’s Gary Gallagher is leading his annual Civil War Conference out of the University of Richmond and involves an impressive list of historians from both camps.  The next few days involve both lectures and battlefield tours in the Richmond-Petersburg area for upwards of one hundred people.  East Carolina University’s Gerald Prokopowicz interviews Civil War historians from both camps on his Civil War Talk Radio. Finally, some of the most talented professional and National Park Service historians have advised the NPS on how it can broaden its battlefield interpretations without losing sight of the battle itself.  Much more can be done.

The attempt to bring a more sophisticated picture of the war to a general audience does involve a number of challenges.  As I’ve pointed out elsewhere the majority of Civil War enthusiasts have narrow interests that rarely take them beyond the battlefield.  Academic discourse has tended towards questions of social and cultural history in an attempt to bridge the gap between the battlefield, home front, and both economic and political realms.  These questions are absolutely essential to advancing our understanding of the war; however, much of this analysis tends to alienate the general public.  As far as I can tell this alienation cannot be explained by an overly sophisticated jargon.  Rather the interpretations themselves are seen as a threat to an ingrained and popular view of the war that involves little if no ethical/moral conflict.   

Professional historians have much to teach the general public about the war, but they must continue to embrace this opportunity even if it is fraught with protests from Southern Heritage Groups and others who have much more interest in protecting a certain interpretation rather than having their assumptions challenged for the purposes of learning.  Much of the criticism leveled at professional historians stems from our tendency to celebrate the war as a function of American exceptionalism.  We need to move beyond this rather immature level of discourse and more fully acknowledge the breakdown in democracy and the importance of slavery and race.  Unfortunately, the charge of revisionism is heard all too often.  It is suggestive that for many the war is not a topic of study, but a way of life.   

Professional historians are in a unique position in relationship to the general public.  They have an opportunity to enrich popular perceptions of the war in a way that goes beyond what most tend to find salient.  To the extent and how they do so will make all the difference.

One final thought:

I’ve been blogging since November 2005 and along the way I’ve thought about why.  Interestingly enough it has only become clear in recent weeks.  I am first and foremost a high school history teacher.  My M.A. in history from the University of Richmond has opened up a number of publishing and speaking opportunities and I’ve embraced it.   I value the fact that an M.A. has been sufficient thus far, though I am well aware that this is unique to the field of Civil War history.  In that respect the easy interaction between academic and non-academic historians has been crucial to my success.  I’ve tried in the classroom, speaking engagements, and publications to bridge this gap between the professional and popular study of the Civil War.  In the end, however, I’ve found blogging to be the most effective method to address this divide.  My readers include both professional historians and many more Civil War enthusiasts.  My goal has been to share ideas and challenge the way we think about the war.  To the extent that I’ve gotten away with it may come down to the fact that I am not part of the academy.   


Introducing Revise and Dissent

Last week Ralph Luker asked me to join a new group blog over at the History News Network.  Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.  I read HNN on a regular basis and I thought they did a great job with my piece "Why the Civil War Still Matters."  The group includes bloggers with a wide range of interests and should generate some thought-provoking debates.  As for me, this should not involve more time in the blogosphere as I plan to cross-post entries from this blog.  No doubt I will need to spend a bit more time fine tuning my ideas.  Here is the maiden post for Revise and Dissent.  I hope you enjoy this new group venture.  I know I will.

Around two and a half thousand years ago there was a man from a town on the shores of what is now Turkey who had a love of travel. He travelled widely across the known world talking to people and listening to their stories. Wherever he went he heard tales of wonder, bravery and achievement. When he could he travelled to places to see the remains left with his own eyes. But the tales he found would rely upon the memories of those he told. Then he had a stroke of genius. He wrote them down:

"This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvellous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory…" – Herodotus 1.1

The ancient Greek word for inquiry was Historia.

In common usage history is synonymous with the past, but this wasn’t originally the case. The Greeks already had a past that they knew well from Homer. They had their own stories of how they came to occupy their land. Yet Herodotus brought the innovation of distinguishing between what is known and what is true. He became known as the "Father of History". In many places he didn’t do a very good job. His sometimes overly credulous retelling of stories gained him the dubious title "Father of Lies".

While Herodotus wasn’t perfect he did at least lay the foundations for a system of inquiry which survives to this day and can provide the tools to help tease apart what happened in the past from what we wished happened in the past. Yet, as long as we remain human, this process must be ongoing because we bring our own prejudices and perspectives when we interpret the past. The past is a battleground of current ideologies.

The Airminded Brett Holman examines a new dimension in warfare for his forthcoming PhD thesis, the development in airpower and British society from 1908-1941. He came to history from an MSc in astrophysics and so is excellently placed to combine the history of science with broader history. He’s excellently placed anyway, being based at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Kevin C Murphy follows American history from 1890 to the end of the Second World War at his blog a Ghost in the Machine. His thesis in progress at Columbia University is "Armageddon Days are Here Again: Progressive Persistence in American Politics, 1919-1928" which explores the politics of America in the aftermath of what was thought to have been the war to end all wars.

The non-rhyming Kevin Levin holds two MAs in History and Philosophy and teaches AP History at the St. Anne’s – Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia. His area of choice is the Civil War and its continuing effect on American society which you can read about at his blog Civil War Memory. Even today the Civil War has the potential to divide society. Yet the Civil War is also arguably one of the factors which led to America becoming a superpower. Undivided, America became stronger.

Jeremy Boggs, also a student of 19th century America, writes at Clioweb. He’s based at George Mason University and responsible for a lot of the design of what you see here. When he’s not working on his PhD he’s devising new techno-gadgets at the Center for History and New Media.

David Davisson has recently turned his attention to medicine shows in early colonial North America. As a way of experiencing itinerancy first hand he finds himself moving from Norman, Oklahoma to the sunny climes of Tampa, Florida and the University of South Florida. When not distracted by shiny objects in the real world he can be found blogging at Patahistory.

From the Land of Lime on the other side of the world comes Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, currently at the University of Chicago. Prithvi also deals with the History of Ideas and the Philosophy of History, but from the perspective of medieval and contemporary South Asia. To western eyes India has always been exotic on the edge of the world from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo. Yet India has long exerted a subtle influence on other cultures through long distance trade.

Natalie Bennett is currently a freelance journalist based in London, with a keen interest in women’s history, with an avowedly feminist slant as seen at Philobiblon. As you’d expect, given that women generally make up about 50% of societies, she’s interested in a wide variety of time periods. Can, and should, the previously silenced voices be given a space? She says ‘yes!’.

History from silence is a good description of archaeology. Alun Salt is our final contributor. He’s one of the cohort of archaeoastronomers at the University of Leicester where he is currently completing a PhD on colonisation in ancient Sicily. He doesn’t trust people who can write about themselves in the third person.

Separately each of the authors has had their own weblog, and these will continue. The reason for coming together is that no part of history is isolated from any other part and often work in one period will have repercussions in how we see other periods, including the present. Lord Byron said: "The best of prophets of the future is the past," but Karl Marx noted: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

We’ll see if either of them were right.

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