A Dangerous Textbook?

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

Over the weekend I received an email from a concerned parent about the textbook that I am currently using in my AP course in American History.  As I mentioned before the textbook is Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!  The parent noted that Eric Foner has a reputation as a "neo-Marxist" and was worried that the textbook presented a radically biased interpretation.  Nowhere in the email did this person point out a specific shortcoming or bias.  In closing the parent expressed the hope that his child would be introduced to a range of interpretations and would not be penalized for adopting a view that challenged Foner. 

Let me start by saying that I have no problem with concerns of this type.  In fact, in my response I applauded this parent’s concern and interest in what his child is reading.  I wish more parents were this vigilant.  I indicated that my students will be reading a wide-range of both primary and secondary sources.  In the latter camp they read short articles by Howard Zinn, Paul Johnson, Gordon Wood, David Blight, Ed Ayers, and Alan Taylor, to name just a few.  I want my students to think for themselves and work on developing their own understanding of the American past to the best of their ability and based on everything they’ve read.  At their age they are in no position to dismiss out of hand any one view simply based on a political label.  We’ve seen very clearly the consequences of this on the evening news and on the various interview/entertainment shows on Fox and MSNBC. 

There are, however, a number of issues that are worth exploring in greater detail.  At this point I am going to simply raise the issues and come back later.  First, the degree to which history has become politicized over the past few years is troubling.  While Eric Foner’s politics and public statements clearly place him in the "liberal" camp I want my students to judge his interpretation on its own merits.  In other words, Foner’s interpretation should stand or fall based on his handling of the relevant evidence and in the context of competing interpretations.  My students should be able to separate out Foner’s politics from his scholarship if the issue is even raised.  Is this possible?  On the face of it there seems to be no reason that it is not.  That he is a liberal does not constitute a sufficient reason to dismiss him as a historian.  This is the fundamental mistake made by David Horowitz in his inclusion of Foner as one of the most dangerous professors on college campuses today.  Even if we assume that he is "dangerous" we have said nothing about any specific historical theory or interpretation.  Again, let the work speak for itself.  I pointed out in my response that Foner’s study of Reconstruction is considered by many to be the standard history of the subject; one would be hard pressed to conclude that his interpretation reflects a commitment to "radical" social or political views. I would not suggest for a minute that Foner should refrain from making certain statements, but he hopefully does or should understand the price he pays in the broader public discourse.

I use Foner’s book because it presents a sophisticated narrative of American history from multiple perspectives.  It forces students to look beyond the narrow interpretation that was taught in grade school and in its place appreciate the often contradictory ways in which different groups defined freedom and their place within the citizenry. 

Remembering My Cousin

This is a week where historical memory, personal reflection, and profound sadness merge as I remember my cousin, Alisha Levin.  Alisha was one of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Like many of you I remember the day like it was yesterday.  I was at school in the middle of a class when one of my colleagues pulled me aside to give me the news.  For some reason I went back into my classroom and continued with the lesson.  After a few minutes I stopped in my tracks and tried to convey to my students what I had just been told.  Once the class was dismissed I walked into a classroom with a television and sat transfixed as I watched the re-runs of the initial impact an then the live coverage of the second plane hitting the South Tower.   I should have known immediately what the impact of the second plane meant for my family.  Once the first plane hit Alisha left a message on her parent’s phone to let them know that she was unharmed.  That was the last that anyone heard from her.  [Alisha's library card was eventually returned to her parents.]  I am almost ashamed to admit that I did not make the connection between the collapse of the towers and my cousin until late afternoon even as I watched a continuous loop of those horrific images.  It wasn’t until my parents called.  My wife picked up the phone and for some reason just from the look on her face I finally realized what I had inexplicably overlooked.  The next few days were incredibly difficult as family and friends posted messages on various internet message boards and posters around Lower Manhattan.  I went back to school and tried to place the day’s events into some context.  My students had plenty of questions, but unfortunately I had no answers.

Alisha was 33 and worked as a vice-president of human resources for Fuji Bank which was located on the 82nd floor of the South Tower.  She absolutely loved living and working in New York City.  Alisha was very close to her sister Mindy and her two sons, Jacob and Alex.  Though Alisha worked very hard she regularly took the train home to Philadelphia on weekends to spend time with family.  She also loved to travel and was planning a trip to Italy the following summer.  Click here and here for articles about Alisha that appeared in the Northeast Times on the one-year anniversary of 9-11.

When I was younger I loved spending time with Alisha and her sister Mindy along with the rest of the family in Philadelphia over the holidays.  Alisha and I were one year apart so we always had a great deal to talk about. We debated whether The Who or Led Zeppelin was the better Rock Band and we talked generally about what was going on in our lives.  It was not uncommon for the two us to find a place on the steps overlooking the rest of the family to talk or make fun of my brother.  What stands out in my memory is her laugh.  Alisha had a laugh that simply filled up the room; it was one of those laughs that came from deep within.

Alisha attended Hofstra and Columbia University.  I did my undergraduate work just outside the city and made it a point to meet up with Alisha on a few occasions.  I remember one particular visit where we walked what seemed to be the entire downtown area around NYU and the Village.  Alisha had a way of making you feel special so just sitting in a cafe was one of the most pleasant ways to pass the time with her.  My only regret now is that I didn’t make it a point to spend more time with Alisha.  She had a big heart and cared deeply about family and friends.  [Click here for a memorial album that includes some very touching thoughts from friends and even strangers.]

Alisha’s death has left a deep hole in my family.  At times it has been very difficult for the family to come together as there have been disagreements about the best way to remember Alisha.  Fortunately those disagreements are in the past and my family seems to be coming back together.  While I care deeply about the way New York city will choose to remember the victims and re-shape “Ground Zero” I find it difficult to think about the issue without becoming distracted by my personal connection to the event.

I miss you very much.

“No One Has Ever Said That Before”

So far I am really enjoying my Civil War class.  While this is only the fourth day of class we are now right in the middle of an interesting discussion about the causes of the war and secession.  We are working our way through James McPherson’s North and South Magazine article titled, "What Caused the Civil War" [Vol. 4, No. 1: pp. 12-22].  The students must write a 2-page thesis summary of the article.  After our next article by William Freehling each student will have to choose an article from a list and lead the class discussion on that particular day.  The idea is to create something close to a college seminar. 

The McPherson article is ideal as it is well written and the argument builds in a way that is easy to follow if read with a critical eye.  Anyway, today we were trying to explain the apparent shift in the content of the speeches of both Davis and Stephens in reference to the role of slavery as a cause of secession.  While Davis and Stephens elevate the role of slavery above all other conditions in their speeches in 1860-61 they retreat to the states’ rights position following the war.  Between McPherson’s argument which places slavery historically at the center of the antebellum political debates and by asking the students to think of why white Southerners like Davis and Stephens would have an interest in ignoring the issue, they were able to begin to see the broader problem of why Americans have chosen to ignore the importance of slavery. 

Towards the end of the class one of my new students pointed out that she had been taught U.S. and Virginia history at least four times in recent years.  I should note that this is a new student who transferred from a local public school this year to finish her senior year.  She is extremely bright and apparently had taken all of the AP course that were offered at her old school.  At no point was slavery raised as a salient factor in explaining secession and Civil War in those previous classes.  She said it with just a hint of confusion as if something important had been kept from her.  It was nice to see a student step back and consider the history of what she had been taught about a specific subject.  Hopefully this will translate into a healthy skepticism that will involve more questioning of the people who appear as authorities in the classroom — INCLUDING YOURS TRULY!

Trouble for David Eicher or Sympathy For James McPherson

[Hat-Tip to Fred Ray at ACW Gaming and Reading]

Looks like David Eicher is being accused by William Frassanito of sloppy research and unethical research practices in his 2001 Gettysburg pictorial study.  The Amazon reviews are anything but encouraging.  Frassanito himself has cited numerous examples of photographs that were misidentified or taken from his own well-regarded pictorial before and after studies of Civil War battlefields.  From Frassanito’s lengthy critique:

Although quality-control issues likewise abound in Mr. Eicher’s book, such as
the presence of a surprising number of blurry historical photos and the
reproduction of numerous photos in an almost postage-stamp-sized format, etc.,
etc., it is the manner in which his historical photo presentation was put
together that should be of alarming concern to all serious students of the Civil
War. Certainly the unacknowledged, systematic, and wholesale duplication of
someone else’s original work, and the portrayal of that work as if original to
the duplicator; the clandestine acquisition of photographs from copyrighted
publications; and the deceptive manipulation of photo credits, are all
disreputable practices that should be condemned.

James McPherson, who wrote the Foreward to Eicher’s book has decided to disassociate himself from the project. 

Eicher’s reproduction of photographs from William Frassanito’s books and about the accuracy of some of the maps and captions in Eicher’s book to convince me that my praise of the book in the Foreward is not entirely merited.

McPherson goes on to urge the publisher to remove his name from any additional printings that may be planned for publication in the future.  While I have a great deal of respect for McPherson’s scholarship I do find it difficult to sympathize with him here.  McPherson’s endorsements appear on way too many books to believe that he has actually spent sufficient time reviewing for quality control.  Perhaps this will cause McPherson to be a bit more conservative with the number of projects that he publicly endorses. 

Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free: An Analysis

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The National Park Service recently released a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, which focuses on the experiences of both black and white Virginians in the Fredericksburg area during the Civil War.  The production is another example of the NPS’s efforts to broaden their interpretation of Civil War battlefields to acknowledge the importance of the civilian perspective as well as the role of emancipation and race.  I invited historian John Hennessy who is currently employed as the Chief of Interpretation for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the script’s author to share his thoughts about the movie.  Mr. Hennessy was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the movie for review.  Feedback is of course welcome, especially from those who have seen the movie. 

John Hennessy

Dominantly, we did the civilian film because the story is important.  The transformation of this war (from the Union perspective) from a relatively straightforward effort to re-assemble the Union in 1861 into a consumptive conflagration intended to restore the Union by transforming the nature of it is, I believe, the single most important thematic link between all Civil War sites.  Every site has something to say and stories to tell about that transformation.  Fredericksburg has more to tell than most.  With four battles spanning 18 months; with a town bombarded and looted; with civilians fleeing as refugees into he countryside; with thousands of slaves refusing to await emancipation, and instead seizing freedom themselves; with a landscape desolated not just by battle, but by the mere presence of armies; with changing Union attitudes toward the concept of a Hard War; with a local economy that suffered wartime damage enough to require nearly a century to recover; with the loss of life that vividly reflects the immense human cost of this war; with leaders struggling to adapt to a changing war, and to reckon with the political implications of every victory or misstep–the story we can tell goes miles beyond pure military science or military history.  There is hardly place in America where a visitor can get a better understanding of this war in all its manifestations, and in all its consequences, as it evolved from relatively simple to profoundly complex and significant.

Our primary purpose in making the film is to do good history–to begin th process of showing that what the armies did reverberated beyond the bound of their camps and colleagues in uniform.   We wanted to show that different people often perceived the same event in entirely different ways (for example, the traditional monolithic interpretation that "Fredericksburg" was horrified by the arrival of the Union army in 1862 is simply not  true; slaves–literally half the population in this region–saw the Union army in VERY different terms than did white residents; for them, the Union army meant not horror, but opportunity).  We wanted to illustrate, by using Fredericksburg as an example, that the Civil War transformed not in abstract, legalistic ways, but in physical, financial, and cultural ways, and that the impact of the war still reverberates (though I think we were not as successful on this last point as we should have been).

How has it been received?  Very positively, largely.  The most common negative comment is that it focuses too much on slavery.  A few have suggested that we were just being politically correct by addressing slavery.  About one-third of the film addresses the experiences of slaves and the significance of that experience.  Objectively–given that the civilian population in the region was almost exactly 50% slave–spending just one-third of the film addressing slavery is too little, not too much. But, in the context of a society often instructed that slaves and slaver were not and are not an integral part of the Civil War story, it’s not surprising that even the quantitatively inadequate treatment in the film strikes some as too much.

In our visitor center, where we show the film once a day (we show it regularly at Chatham), the staff has noted that visitors just don’t seem to expect or be prepared for something that doesn’t focus on the battles themselves.  Again, that’s not surprising given our long tradition of focusing only on military history.  I think over time and even decades, part of our goal should be to increase visitors’ expectations so that something of this sort doesn’t surprise them…..

There have been a few rumbles that we shouldn’t be doing this sort of interpretation at all–that we should confine ourselves solely to the military story, as we have for decades.  The reasons for that are well-discussed on this board, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on them.  I can only say, again, that our commitment is to doing good history, and to me that means untangling all the impacts and meanings of the events and sites we’re charged with interpreting.  In that context, it seems to me, the civilian story is unarguably an important part of our story, one that’s both important to tell and well worth hearing.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the civilian film has brought to the surface some fear that the NPS is going to overawe our traditional, battle-oriented interpretation with abstract forays into social history, cultural meanings, and modern relevance.  That’s silly. The civilian film hasn’t replaced a thing.  It’s an addition to our program, delivered with an eye toward according MORE significance to the battles fought here rather than less. We have not and will not diminish our commitment to telling the story of the battles this park was founded to interpret–that’s our job. But we will, I hope, constantly plow new historical ground that reveals the full impact and importance of those events.  Both good history and historical justice demand it.

Kevin M. Levin

One of the central themes of this blog has been to challenge the way we think about our Civil War.  As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides.  From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years.  According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions.  Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences.  No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided. 

The battle of Fredericksburg is the paradigm example of this tendency.  We tend to see the December 1862 battle as a slug-fest where men on both sides were slaughtered and where Robert E. Lee could utter his famous line about the horrors of war.  Visitors to the battlefield walk the path along the Stone Wall and Maryes Heights, but probably think little about the civilians caught in the middle or the timing of the battle which was situated between the release of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and its execution on January 1, 1863.  The war was changing in profound ways that few could have predicted at the beginning, but given our prejudices for a narrow conception of the battlefield one would never know it.  If we look at the battle at all from the civilian perspective it is as a white Southerner who viewed the occupation of the town as a terrible tragedy.  What is missed, of course, is the slave perspective which interpreted the movements of Union soldiers not as "Yankee hordes", but as liberators. 

This broader perspective on the significance of Fredericksburg is nothing new for professional historians.  Recent social and cultural histories have opened up new areas of research and have enriched the way we think about individual campaigns and battles.  Unfortunately, there is a gulf between the kinds of questions that professional historians analyze and most Civil War enthusiasts who have an insatiable thirst for the minutiae of the battlefield and who – for any number of reasons – have an interest in maintaining a traditional interpretation of the war.  Over the past few years this debate has taken place on the very battlefields of the war and in the offices of the National Park Service.  As many of you know the NPS is now re-interpreting many of its Civil War sites to include references of civilian life as well as the touchy issues of race, slavery, and emancipation.  [My recent trip to Appomattox Court House is but one example.] 

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s contribution to this trend is a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free which looks at the war in the Fredericksburg area from the civilian perspectives of white Southerners and slaves.  What emerges is an incredibly rich account of how the war, and the battle specifically, altered life in the area in ways that few could have predicted.  The movie is rooted in the words of the participants themselves, which challenges the criticism that this "new" approach to doing history is simply a product of liberal or post-modern theory emanating from the academy. 

The wide-range of primary sources brings to life such unknown figures as the slave John Washington who eventually escaped as the Union army approached the town, as well as Dabney H. Maury, Fanny White, and Mary C. Knox who struggled through the hardships of occupation and the destruction of their homes; most importantly they struggled to understand and accept the end of slavery.  One of the strongest scenes takes place following the battle and involves a Union soldier escorting a slave family off their owner’s property and to freedom.  The woman of the house rushes to the family and pleads for them not to abandon her and the family.  The scene goes far in suggesting how little white Southerners understood their slave’s desire for freedom.  As Washington noted, "…life had a new joy awaiting me."    The message underlying the movie is clear: Only by focusing on the slave perspective can the real significance of military operations in 1862 be more clearly understood. 

Southern white woman are also featured prominently in this movie.  The war mobilized the entire Fredericksburg community and its woman are shown meeting to discuss how best to support the soldiers in the ranks.  Woman are also depicted as ardent supporters of the Confederate cause through their bitter hatred of "Yankee" soldiers.  One young woman noted in her diary, "They little no the hatred in our hearts."  Even towards the end of the war the civilians of Fredericksburg remained defiant and convinced that "with God we will be victorious."  Such a stance reinforces recent interpretations that white Southerners remained committed to the Confederacy until the very end and that defeat did not bring about a smooth reconciliation with the North.

The production staff for this movie should be congratulated for creating an entertaining and educational look at those groups and themes that have long been ignored at our Civil War battlefields.  As John Hennessy noted in his commentary, there will always be critics.  What we need to remember is that the Civil War does not belong to any one group.  Our job as historians is to continue to explore the difficult questions and find ways to share those insights with the general public.  I applaud the National Park Service and particularly the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for their efforts.

Click here for a schedule and location

Click here for a review from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.