Jonathan Yardley’s Picks For Best Books Of 2006

Jonathan Yardley has one of the coolest jobs around.  He gets paid to read good books and right about them.  Here are his picks for best books of 2006 and I am pleased to see both Jonathan Skokol’s study of the Civil Rights Movement and Joan Cashin’s biography of Varina Davis, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend.  From Yardley’s review:

Three of the works of nonfiction that make my personal list of the year’s
best books, and one of the works of fiction, initially came to my attention
because of a lifelong interest in race relations in the United States generally
and in Southern history more specifically. These are matters about which I make
no claims to virtue or moral purity, but they have been foremost in my mind ever
since, as a boy of 9, I moved with my family from the Northeast to Southside
Virginia. The sight of black convicts working in chain gangs by the roadside
unnerved me, and so did the experience of being waited upon by black women who
were older than my mother.

That was in the summer of 1948, a time when the South was poised at the
threshold of momentous and, for many, traumatic change. The system of
segregation and oppression seemed as immutable as the obligatory statue of a
Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse. Blacks lived in what whites
called "their place," and whites assumed they were both happy in it and
uninterested in rising above it.

The next quarter-century proved just how wrong those assumptions were. How
the white South responded to the civil rights movement is the subject of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil
Rights, 1945-1975
, by Jason Sokol, a young scholar who has done
exhaustive research in primary sources and who has shown how difficult it is to
generalize about white Southerners in that time of astonishing social, political
and cultural upheaval. He gives all due attention to those who reacted bitterly,
noisily and sometimes violently to black protest, but he also shows how some
whites were embarrassed by these troublemakers and sought other ways to deal
with change. Without ever losing sight of the indisputable justice and necessity
of the civil rights movement, Sokol manages to understand those who were caught
on the sidelines yet found their lives irreversibly altered.

The history of complex Southern feelings about the subjugated blacks in their
midst is as long as the history of slavery and segregation. New evidence of this
is brought to light by Joan E. Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. Her
title is somewhat misleading, as this biography of Jefferson Davis’s wife
encompasses far more than the four years of the war, but it does underscore the
point that Varina Howell Davis was involved in internal as well as external
struggles. She doesn’t seem to have questioned slavery more than occasionally
and half-heartedly, but she believed that secession was foolish and the war
unwinnable for the Confederacy. She supported her husband unflinchingly, as was
expected of wives in that time, but she disagreed with him frequently and
apparently wasn’t afraid to tell him so.

I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from both book, but if you choose one read Skokol.  I will be very surprised if this book does not win a few awards.  One quick word about biographies.  This past week two fellow Civil War bloggers addressed a question about the merits of Ed Longacre’s work.  The concern was in regard to whether the frequency of his published work threatens its overall quality.  Apart from a review I did of one of Longacres’s cavalry studies for the journal Civil War History I am not familiar with his more recent biographies so I can’t comment.  I will say, however, that I tend to stay away from historians who pump out books at a high rate, especially in the area of biography.  You can easily distinguish between those biographies that are the result of a careful reading of both the primary and relevant secondary sources.  More importantly, you can easily pick out the studies whose authors spent the necessary time thinking about their subject and trying to generate the right questions to ask.  When I pick up a biography I want to read a preface that reflects both a careful research and writing process and that involves interaction with fellow historians.  In short, I want to read a story of how the historian came to know his/her subject and this takes time.  A perfect example is the 2-volume biography of W.E.B. Dubois by David L. Lewis that I am trying to get through.

Perhaps I could have simply said that I am not a fan of production-line history.


Thank You Keith Ellison

I couldn’t be more pleased with the decision of Congressman-elect Keith Ellison of Minnesota who has decided that he will be sworn into office with the Koran.  [Here is the story from the Chicago Tribune.] Of course, the blogosphere quickly heated up following this announcement.  Here is one example from Dennis Prager: "He should not be allowed to do so, not because of any American
hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American culture."  Is there a passage in the Constitution that our strict constructionists can point to that outlines a Bible only swearing in ceremony? They were concerned about concepts like corruption, government power, sovereignty, and representation.  Sorry, but on this one it is safe to conclude that the Founders were "multiculturalists."

Thanks to Eugene Volokh over at National Review Online for pointing out the absurdity of Prager’s and other criticisms of Ellison:

Of course, some might care less about making the oath more effective, and more
about using the oath to reinforce traditional American values, in which they
include respect for the Bible (the “only … book” “America is interested in”)
over other holy books. That, I take it, is part of Prager’s argument, especially
when he goes on to say, “When all elected officials take their oaths of office
with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value
system underlies American civilization.”

Yet this would literally violate
the Constitution’s provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a
Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” For the
devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the
performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a
religious test. If Congress were indeed to take the view that “If you are
incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,”
it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test.

What’s more,
the Constitution itself expressly recognizes the oath as a religious act that
some may have religious compunctions about performing. The religious-test clause
is actually part of a longer sentence: “The Senators and Representatives …
[and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation,
to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required ….”
The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath reflects the judgment — an
early multiculturalist judgment — in favor of accommodating members of some
denominations (such as Quakers) who read the Bible as generally prohibiting the
swearing of oaths.

These doomsday cries have become all too common, but we should keep in mind that they are empirical claims; in other words, the burden is on Prager to show how someone’s faith other than Christianity constitutes a threat to "American culture." Last time I checked our Constitution protected freedom of religion.  Isn’t the idea that religion should not be a test for office part of our culture and history? 

I can’t help but think that this has little to do with culture and congressional history and everything to do with an irrational paranoia about Islam.  Does taking the oath of office on the Bible necessarily lead to a more responsible representative?  Do I even have to answer this question?  What I find even more interesting is the very real possibility that there have been at least a small number of public servants who have taken the oath with the Bible, but are not "true believers."  In other words, they just went through the motions.  Why does this not bother anyone?  Why isn’t an insincere oath not seen as a threat to our national culture.  Isn’t Ellison’s religious convictions and identification with the Koran at least worth the same amount of respect? 

I have no doubut that allowing Ellison to practice his faith openly without any of this irrational criticism can only help us on the long road back to reaching a position where we can actively and constructively engage the Islamic world.       


Assessing Ken Burns

In response to yesterday’s post on Ken Burns and the Crater a reader chimed in with a very negative assessment of The Civil War.  I’ve made regular references to Burns’s documentary throughout the life of this blog, including references to its usefulness in the classroom (and here) and as a point of contrast between popular perceptions and the more critical stance of academic historians.

I have to say that I find Burns to be quite valuable on a number of levels.  Yes, I agree that there are plenty of problems with his interpretation, but there is much to admire and value.  [For a thorough critique of the documentary see Brent Toplin’s edited collection of essays titled, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond.] I agree with much of what is contained in those critiques, but keep in mind that historians will always find something to analyze as falling short of the mark. In addition to factual problems, Burns spends most of his time in the Eastern Theatre, Shelby Foote tells too many goofy stories and makes some other outrageous comments, and the last section on Appomattox and reunion is way off the mark.  Still, by including historian Barbara Fields viewers are exposed to the"bottom-up" perspective of emancipation rather than the overly simplistic "great emancipator" story.  Burns does capture the horror of the battlefield and ways in which the battlefield, politics, and the home front intersect.  I could go on.

What I admire about Burns is that he never ignored the criticisms of historians; in fact, he deals with them head-on in the Toplin collection and he does so by carefully laying out the goals of a filmmaker in contrast with a more traditional historical study.  Burns was engaged and even passionate about the material that he was attempting to get across to a broad audience back in 1989.  Let’s face it, Burns’s documentary is probably the most influential interpretation in the last 25 years.  I know we would like to give the nod to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but I suspect that the majority of people who own the book have actually never read it or they haven’t read most of it.  I don’t mind admitting that I never read through the whole thing straight through until a graduate seminar a few years back.  It’s a dynamite book, but compared to Burns it’s boring as hell. 


Bush Orders “American Civil War” Renamed “American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865″

A little humor from

President Bush issued an executive order today renaming the American Civil War as the "American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865." In the name of accuracy, all references to the previous title on federal property were ordered changed by the end of December, although current history textbooks in public schools are allowed to remain in use through the end of the academic year.

"I just don’t see what was so civil about the conflict," Bush noted in a press conference. "All you really had was a lot of sectarian violence between the two sides. The truth is that it wasn’t even that bad. People just got an exaggerated viewpoint because all of the terrible things the liberal media showed on TV at the time."

Bush stressed that the important thing to remember is that "the Yankees" won because President Lincoln refused to leave until the job was done and "all the Democrats kept their darn mouths shut."

"Freeing the Mexicans was pretty good, too," he added.

With Bush refusing to acknowledge civil war in Iraq despite such a declaration by a growing number of experts, news publications, and even his former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the White House is struggling to insure the public has the correct definition of the term.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says war is "a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations," but civil war is "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country." According to a White House source speaking on the condition of anonymity, the Administration’s official position is that civil wars are thus semantically impossible by technicality since "war" is only between different states.

"I don’t quite understand how it works myself," the source said, "but Karl was really insistent that we don’t ever say the words ‘civil war’ under any circumstance. . . oops."

President Bush remarked during the press conference that the renaming of the "American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865" represented a turning point for his strategy in Iraq. "The enemy wants us to change our terminology," Bush said. "The only way we lose in Iraq is if we call it a civil war. . . oops."


Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.

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