Why is it the case that a large percentage of people who claim to have had an alien abduction experience live in the West? At the same time, why is it that family stories passed down by a Confederate ancestor tend to involve some kind of meeting with Robert E. Lee? From the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star:
THE FIRST TIME I heard Brooke Snead talk about her father’s days with Robert E. Lee, I felt as if my high school history book had come to life. Mrs. Snead, who died in Fredericksburg last year after 98 robust years on this Earth, was a real daughter of the Confederacy. Her father remembered Gen. Lee, born 199 years ago tomorrow, not as a misty figure from the past, but as the gray-clad commander who asked him to store some drums in April of 1865, just before surrendering his army to Ulysses S. Grant. Next to God speaking to him, Mrs. Snead’s father once said, meeting Gen. Lee was the grandest thing that could ever happen to him. For me, and for a significant but shrinking percentage of Free Lance-Star readers, such generation-jumping tales of “The War” resonate deeply. Born-and-bred Southerners of my age and older have grown up amid the controversy and pride of our Civil War history.
That’s right, of all the things that Lee had to worry about in the days before his surrender at Appomattox Court House, hiding the drums was of the highest priority.
I was recently asked to write an essay for an edited volume that will address various themes in Virginia in 1864. My specific assignment is to track civilian morale in Virginia from the beginning of the siege of Petersburg (June 1864) through to the end of the year. Although I have some general ideas that I want to test based on what I’ve read in the secondary literature, I want to think critically about how to measure civilian morale. Certain distinctions will need to be made in terms of class, location, and politics. The general trend in the secondary literature has been to emphasize the extent of civilian morale for the Confederate war effort into and through the summer of 1864.
Gary Gallagher has emphasized the importance of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as a driving force that continued to galvanize popular support even through the summer of 1864. The letters written home by Lee’s Virginians in the Petersburg trenches reflect a positive outlook at least up until the fall of Atlanta and even more so following Lincoln’s election in November. I will have to look through Tracy Power’s study of Lee’s army to see where he notices any apparent decline in the ranks. If I remember correctly it is in late 1864. No doubt the letters written home by Peter Carmichael’s “last generation” aided in maintaining support in those households. William Blair and Sarah A. Rubin have emphasized the ways in which nationalism was expressed both on the home front and in the ranks late in the war. I’ve been working on and off on a project which analyzes reactions to Confederate military executions. What I am surprised by is that even late in the war I found a significant amount of approval for this practice even as the military situation continued to deteriorate in 1864. Even among civilians I found examples of strong support for these executions as a way to maintain order and a viable fighting force. I interpret many of these reactions as examples of continued identification with the idea of a Confederate nation.
Part of the question involves thinking through the distinction between what some historians describe as the internal vs. external explanation of Confederate defeat. The former explanation concludes that internal fractures within the South brought about defeat rather than any specific defeat(s) on the battlefield. The above examples reflect the latter interpretion. The Confederacy did suffer from internal weaknesses (as do all societies at war) however they were not sufficient to bring about defeat. The Confederacy maintained a strong sense of nationalism and only succumbed as a result of battlefield defeat. I don’t think that this distinction is an artificial one, though I am going to have to step back as much of my own reading has gravitated to the external side.
In the end I will want the partipants to speak for themselves and not through some preconceived set of assumptions. There must be balance. Thinking about this question of morale sometimes feels like what Peter Novick once described as “nailing jelly to the wall.” I apologize if this reads as if I am just yapping on.
This is one of the few national holidays that I care deeply about. At the same time I feel uneasy about a holiday that celebrates a man and a cause that as a nation we have not fully come to terms with. Not only do we resist talking seriously about race in this country, but when we do we don’t really know how to go about it. Perhaps the public commemoration of King is in part a tactic for not having to engage in more serious reflection. We can sit back and listen once again to his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial and pretend that the problem of racism is in the past. As classes resume tomorrow I plan to read a excerpt from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is in my mind one of the clearest statements of the need for racial justice. This is of course the letter King wrote in response to local clergymen who counseled patience in the face of white resistance. That King had to justify his tactics to clergymen reflects the pervasiveness of white racism and the failure to understand the day-to-day experiences of brutality and humiliation. Here is the section that I will read:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Thank you Dr. King.
The Robert E. Lee Commission of the Commonwealth of Virginia is planning a press conference for Thursday, January 19th to discuss plans for the general’s 200th birthday next year. What are its goals?
“The plans for the 200th birthday celebration include a variety of educational efforts and activities that will last throughout 2007. The goals of the Commission are to develop and support educational efforts about all facets of Lee’s life and his legacy in the Commonwealth, and to support and promote tourism in the Commonwealth with a variety of activities, events, and programs that will highlight locations around the state that were touched by or shaped by Robert E. Lee.”
And who serves on this commission in addition to co-chairman Delegate Benjamin A. Cline and Senator Emmett W. Hanger Jr.?
“Other members of the Lee Memorial Commission include Delegate Robert Hurt, Delegate Lynwood W. Lewis, Jr., Delegate Thomas C. Wright, Jr., Senator Frank M. Ruff, Jr., and representatives of Washington and Lee University, the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, the Virginia Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Virginia Division of United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as the Director of the Department of Historic Resources, the Director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”
Looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause is alive and well and in good hands.
History News Network just posted an explanation from former Professor Jacques Pluss which purports to explain his membership in a Neo-Nazi organization. Here is a summary from HNN:
Editor’s Note: A year ago, in a controversial decision, Fairleigh Dickinson University fired historian Jacques Pluss after it was revealed that he was a member of the National Socialist Movement. (The school insisted he was fired for missing classes.) The decision drew national headlines. A Neo-Nazi on the faculty of a bona fide university? News accounts indicated that Pluss, an adjunct for several years at the school, was a popular teacher. Students said he didn’t bring his politics into the classroom. It didn’t seem to add up. It didn’t for a reason, says Mr. Pluss.
So why this post? Turns out that as an undergraduate at William Paterson College I worked as a T. A. for Professor Pluss. I remember him as a passionate teacher who cared deeply about his students. He gave me my first teaching experience by allowing me to lecture on Aristotle’s Ethics. I’ve read Pluss’s explanation, but to be honest I don’t have the faintest clue as to what to make of it.