Sloppy Research

This letter-to-the-editor will appear in the next issue of America’s Civil War correcting a reference I made in the introduction to the John C. Winsmith letter

Dear Editors:
Someone may have already raised this issue, but just in case they have not, I will. In the September issue’s "Eyewitness to War" department, Kevin M. Levin made a frequently occurring error in his introduction to the letter from John Christopher Winsmith. In setting the stage for the letter he describes the 1st
South Carolina during the "spring campaign of 1864" as being commanded by "Colonel Johnson Hagood." Johnson Hagood, who was the first commander of the 1st South Carolina, had left the regiment after his promotion to Brigadier General in August 1863, with an effective date of July 21. In the time frame of the letter, May 1864, he, with his South Carolina brigade, were in active combat against Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s command in the Bermuda Hundreds.

When Winsmith mentions his commander, "Col. Hagood," in his letter, he is referring to Johnson Hagood’s younger brother, James Robert Hagood, who by that time had been promoted to command of the 1st South Carolina. It is important to note that his promotion to command was for merit not because his relationship to the first commander. His brief biography from the South Carolina volume of the "Confederate Military History" will illustrate this point. When he enlisted in the 1st South Carolina, Col. Thomas Glover was in command. "He was rapidly promoted, first to the office of sergeant-major, the adjutant of his regiment, then to the captaincy of one of the companies (Co. K), and illustrative of the fact that worth levels all grades, upon the death of the gallant (Colonel Franklin W.) Kilpatrick (killed in action at Lookout Valley/Wauhatchie Junction, Tennessee October 28, 1863), he was promoted over four senior captains and all the field officers to the colonelcy of his regiment. All of these promotions occurred within a year of his enlistment as a private, and three of them were conferred as a reward for ‘distinguished skill and valor on the battlefield.’ His colonel’s commission is dated ten days before his nineteenth birthday, making him the youngest officer of that rank in the Confederate army."

James A. Gabel
Rapid City, SD

Thanks James for calling me on a bit of sloppy research.

The Self As Historical Object

Tomorrow is the opening day of the new school year.  I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to being just a little nervous.  I enjoy thinking about how to proceed in the first few days.  Those first few classes are by far the most important as the teacher has the opportunity to set the tone for the year.  My goal is to present the subject as an opportunity not just to learn a set of dry facts, but to create a space for serious reflection about some of the deep issues. 

This year I am going to have my students write their own obituaries.  The plan is to hand out a copy of the Obituary Page from the New York Times and have the students reflect on a range of different entries.   Here are just a few questions that they will think about and discuss: (1) What do we learn about these recently deceased individuals? (2) Are longer entries more effective in capturing the individual’s past compared with shorter entries? (3) In what ways are these entries selective and what would you like to know about these people that is is not covered and why? (4) In what ways do these entries reflect their authors?

Finally, the students are asked to write their own obituaries.  I like this idea as it forces them to think of themselves as historian and historical object.  How do they want to be remembered?  How important is accuracy in crafting their individual past for others?  I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with.  This could be a bit uncomfortable for some, but hopefully it will prove to be a fruitful experiment.

William T. Sherman and George Steinbrenner: The New “Yankee” Threat

Here is a rather silly editorial from Anderson, South Carolina that I simply could not resist posting.  Seems that one John Brasier is concerned about a new round of Yankee invaders.  No, they are not Union reenactors or members of the northern equivalent of the Southern League (if there is such a thing).  They are fans of the New York Yankees.  It looks like Mr. Brasier has connected enthusiasm for the "Bronx Bombers" with Sherman’s hordes:

They’re Yankee fans. And they admit it! Actually, they seem to be proud of
it. They are everywhere. At the mall, in the work place, mingling with decent
citizens. Here in the birthplace of the Confederacy!
There are traitors and scoundrels in our midst in and
surrounding the Electric City. Fortunately, they’re easy to recognize. Just look
for the navy ball cap with the white interlocked "NY’’ logo on the front.

They spew sacrilege, praising "The Boss’’ and "A-Rod" out in the open with no
fear of reprisal. This week, they’ve been particularly obnoxious celebrating a
five-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox.

Sure, some are New York-area transplants. Their allegiance to the pinstripes
is understandable, if not unforgivable. Besides, we can identify them by their
Yankee accents and their preference for unsweetened iced tea

The pain of the past is apparently very much alive for Mr. Brasier:

Why hate the Yankees? Let’s start with the nickname.  The Yankees killed soldiers from South Carolina. They burned Columbia. After the
war, they came here as carpetbaggers. Then they came as obnoxious tourists in
Bermuda shorts, colored socks and sandals telling us how they do things up

Perhaps Mr. Brasier should look into starting a grass-roots movement to bring a professional baseball team to the Palmetto State.  He could then stipulate that all players and management must demonstrate a direct connection to a Confederate veteran. 

Ken Burns In The Classroom

In yesterday’s post I commented in passing that Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary should be used with great care in the classroom.  I’ve used it every semester in my own Civil War course as it is both entertaining and pedagogically useful in a number of ways.  The documentary should be used as an interpretation of the war.  This means that the teacher must engage the students in an active manner with some type of activity.  One of the easiest ways – though not the only way – is to pose a set of interpretive questions that can be discussed by the entire class following the segment. 

Begin with the various voices: What role does the narrator (David McCullough) play in the documentary?  How much (if any) authority should his own words carry compared with the other "talking heads"?  [Students should have a bit of background here in reference to McCullough's notoriety as a popular historian.]  What is the role of the "talking heads" such as Shelby Foote?  [I also give my students a little background on Foote.]  What specific role does Foote play in the documentary (i.e. historian v. entertainer).  I will admit that I jump back and forth in terms of the usefulness of Foote.  At times I see him as a major distraction while at other times he is a magnet for those who are new to the subject.  More often than not it is a combination of the two views.

Themes that can be tracked by students: How are Grant and Lee or Davis and Lincoln interpreted in terms of both content and the voices that portray them?  Does the documentary do a good job balancing between the battlefield and homefront; eastern v. western theatres; North v. South (Union v. Confederate); enlisted men v. officers; commoners v. elite?  How representative are Sam Watkins of Tennessee and Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island?  Students can compare and contrast their experiences as portrayed in the documentary.  What role does the music play in various segments?

These are just a few questions/themes that students can explore while watching this documentary.  I should say that I do not use the entire series as it is much too long.  Students should come away with a firmer understanding that documentaries are interpretations.  Any discussion can easily be expanded to other visual mediums.  Given the number of hours that high school students spend in front of the television it is important that we give them the tools to engage with these images and messages. 

I will post other ideas as to how to use Ken Burns as the semester progresses.

David Blight On Civil War Talk Radio

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

David W. Blight was recently interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio which is hosted by Gerry Prokopowicz.  For anyone interested in Civil War memory there is no better place to start than his award-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001).  The book has served as a catalyst for much of what has recently been written about the subject, including my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater.  I didn’t expect to hear anything new from Blight, but I do enjoy listening to him reflect on many of the important themes related to memory. 

The interview touched on Bruce Catton’s influence on Civil War historiography and I was surprised to hear that Blight has used A Stillness at Appomattox in his seminars to give students a sense of the horror of war and the difficulties in the transition to Reconstruction.  He suggested that a book could be written on Catton’s influence on the profession and the way his scholarship moved beyond the narrowness of the battlefield to discuss the broader meanings of the war — a topic that has received a great deal of attention over the past decade.  Blight noted that Catton’s fine narrative touch has been lost and ought to be recovered by professional historians if only for the sake of providing quality texts for the reading public. 

In outlining his analysis of how the war has been remembered Blight referenced the final episode in the Ken Burns documentary which covers the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion.  Of course, by 1913 the meaning of the war had been "sanitized" or cleansed of any racial references and had been turned into a celebration of national progress and the valor of white soldiers from both sides of the Potomac.  That theme courses throughout this final episode.  In pushing this theme Burns includes a few moments of what appear to be black and white soldiers shaking hands.  Unfortunately, the footage is not from 1913, but from the 1938 reunion and the black men are in fact laborers who were working to maintain the camp during the commemoration.  Jim Crow America is absent from the Burns documentary; instead we are to believe that race relations are peaceful and congratulatory.  I should say that this is a wonderful teaching moment.  Burns’s documentary should never be viewed by students without showing them how to analyze it as a historical source.  Directors pick and choose themes as well as footage based on a set of working assumptions. 

It was also interesting to hear Blight briefly touch on themes that I’ve raised on this blog, including the issue of black Confederates.  He is correct in pointing out that this subject has more to do with the consequences of the Civil Rights Movement and the uneasiness for some in coming to terms with an expanding multi-cultural society than anything related to serious Civil War scholarship.  [Bruce Levine puts this debate to rest in his recent book, Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006.]  He also commented on our fascination with the war and the almost casual way in which we express it: "I love the Civil War."  I’ve commented on this in earlier posts titled, "Civil War As Entertainment" and "Are You A Civil War Buff?"

Finally, some of you may be interested in his most recent project which is scheduled for publication in 2007.  Blight has edited two recently uncovered slave narratives that were written after the Civil War.  The first was written by John Washington of Fredericksburg who escaped in 1862 and the second by Wallace Turnadge (unsure of spelling) who escaped in 1864 in the Mobile area.  Blight plans to publish both narratives and write a dual-biography of both men who lived into the twentieth-century.