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.   

0 comments

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.

1 comment

An Effective Analogy: A Response

The other day I posted an analogy ("An Effective Analogy") by William Blair which tries to draw a connection between the importance of slaveholding for non-slaveholding white southerners with our own attitudes towards home ownership.  I have to admit that I was quite impressed with Blair’s analogy before I read this very thoughtful and skeptical response by Hiram Hover.  I was so impressed that I decided to post it so that more might be forced to think critically about his challenge to Blair.  Here is Hover’s response:

1. The question about homeownership is being asked of kids/young
adults, and not of a range of adult men–who are the ones who
participated in elections that involved questions of slavery and
sectionalism before the Civil War.

2. One reason the difference matters is because of the question of
future expectations. You’re asking this question about homeownership of
relatively privileged high school/college kids in a society where
homeownership is a normal and expected part of the life path for people
like them. Slaveownership was not the normative condition of adult
white men in the antebellum South. The kids of slaveowners might have
wanted and expected to follow in their parents footsteps. But esp. by
the 1850s, rising slave prices made it very hard for those who didn’t
already own slaves to break into the ranks of slaveowners–even if they
wanted to do so. That inability, in turn, could lead to frustration and
resentment that might not make a non-slaveowner into an abolitionist,
but could easily give him reason to cast a suspicious eye on political
ideas and programs designed to defend other men’s ownership of slaves.
(Here, the question isn’t whether non-home owners do or would storm the
tax office to protest the deductibility of interest on home mortgages.
The better analogy is to ask how they’d respond if homeowners proposed
to destroy the federal union after the election of a president who
supported the "ultimate extinction" of the home mortgage interest
deduction.)

3. The homeownership analogy also writes the possibility of moral
and political objections out of the picture. The premise is that of
course these kids want to become homeowners–there may be financial
obstacles to buying a home, or practical reasons it’s not advisable
(don’t buy now because of a housing bubble, or because you might leave
the area in a year or two), but there’s nothing politically or morally
objectionable about homeownership per se–it’s hard in modern America
even to imagine what those objections might be. But of course, that was
hardly the case with slaveownership in antebellum America. I’m not
suggesting that most non-slaveowning white Southerners objected on
moral or political grounds to slavery, but it seems unwise to start off
with a teaching technique that effectively excludes such possibilities
from the start.

My question is whether the analogy can still be salvaged.  Any idea?

9 comments

The Learned Foot

I just came across a blogsite called The Learned Foot.  The site is maintained by Jennifer Goellnitz who is an Ohio-based attorney, runner, and Civil War buff.  I browsed her site and found it to be quite entertaining.  As I am also a runner I thoroughly enjoyed her reflections on jogging through Civil War battlefields.  I once jogged the Antietam battlefield in the middle of the summer — not a smart idea.  Brian Dirck (A Lincoln Blog) is also a runner and will no doubt find this site to be of some interest.  Jennifer also maintains websites on a few Civil War leaders, including A.P. Hill, Strong Vincent, and Dr. Hunter McGuire.  I don’t usually recommend non-.edu websites, but these are filled with relevant material that can be used for research purposes.  You will find a link to her site in the right hand column.

0 comments

Remembering Memorial Day

It is probably safe to assume that as we approach Memorial Day Weekend we will see an increase in stories purporting to demonstrate the origin of this commemoration.  Even as we emphasize our nationalistic zeal our fascination with the old saw of North v. South will be highlighted for our reading pleasure.  No doubt the question will be framed in terms of when white Americans gathered to commemorate the first memorial day.  Little thought will be given to the possibility that our tendency to see the Civil War as a white man’s war is both too narrow and overly simplistic.  I first came across the story of how black Charlestonians commemorated Union soldiers buried in a local race track in David Blight’s Race and Reunion, and I recently came across the story again in the on-line journal Common-place by the same author.

After Charleston, South Carolina was evacuated in February 1865 near the end of the Civil War, most of the people remaining among the ruins of the city were thousands of blacks. During the final eight months of the war, Charleston had been bombarded by Union batteries and gunboats, and much of its magnificent architecture lay in ruin. Also during the final months of war the Confederates had converted the Planters’ Race Course (a horse track) into a prison in which some 257 Union soldiers had died and were thrown into a mass grave behind the grandstand.

In April, more than twenty black carpenters and laborers went to the gravesite, reinterred the bodies in proper graves, built a tall fence around the cemetery enclosure one hundred yards long, and built an archway over an entrance. On the archway they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course." And with great organization, on May 1, 1865, the black folk of Charleston, in cooperation with white missionaries, teachers, and Union troops, conducted an extraordinary parade of approximately ten thousand people. It began with three thousand black school children (now enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marching around the Planters’ Race Course with armloads of roses and singing "John Brown’s Body." Then followed the black women of Charleston, and then the men. They were in turn followed by members of Union regiments and various white abolitionists such as James Redpath. The crowd gathered in the graveyard; five black preachers read from Scripture, and a black children’s choir sang "America," "We Rally Around the Flag," the "Star-spangled Banner," and several spirituals. Then the solemn occasion broke up into an afternoon of speeches, picnics, and drilling troops on the infield of the old planters’ horseracing track.

This was the first Memorial Day. Black Charlestonians had given birth to an American tradition. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet on their former masters’ race course, they had created the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.

To this day hardly anyone in Charleston, or elsewhere, even remembers this story. Quite remarkably, it all but vanished from memory. But in spite of all the other towns in America that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day (all claiming spring, 1866), African Americans and Charleston deserve pride of place. Why not imagine a new rebirth of the American nation with this scene?

It is easy to see how such an event could be lost during the postwar period as white Americans chose to ignore the theme of emancipation and in its place substituted a narrative that could more easily bring about sectional reunion.  The remembrance of such events, however, challenges those who continue to downplay or ignore entirely the role that slavery played in the secession debates and the eventual outcome of the war itself.  Regardless of whether we choose to remember these central themes, black Americans clearly did view the war along these lines.  And that is not up for debate. 

1 comment