A Nice Acknowledgment or Making A Difference

I started Gabor Boritt’s new book Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows and was pleased to find in the acknowledgments section a reference to one of my former students.  Her name is Isabel Paterson and she graduated in 2004.  She now attends Gettysburg College and works as one of Boritt’s assistants at the Civil War Institute.  Isabel was a superb student who was absolutely fascinated with the Civil War.  Rather than take my elective Isabel and I worked on an independent study on the Valley of the Shadow; in fact, it was this experience that convinced me to integrate the database into the course.  We met twice a week to talk about how residents of Augusta County, Virginia responded to the 1860 presidential election.  We read some of the relevant secondary literature and tried to figure out to what extent the experience of Virginians in the Shenandoah Valley reflected what scholars had discovered in reference to other parts of the South. 

Isabel mentioned that she was considering Gettysburg College, but it was not until her visit that she was convinced that it was the right place for her.  I still remember talking with her following the visit and it was clear that Isabel was hooked.  She is currently majoring in history with a concentration in Civil War studies.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she pursues the PhD in history and settles on a career in research and teaching.  I’ve had a few students come back to tell me that they are pursuing history degrees in college, but this is the first time that one of my students has shown such a serious interest. I hope my readers don’t mind if I celebrate this, but it is really nice to see one of my students traveling down a road that has brought me such joy.  Good luck Isabel.

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Book Reviews And The Blogger’s Responsibility

I see that a few of my fellow bloggers [Dimitri Rotov, Sean Dail, and Touch the Elbow] are pleased to have received their Simon and Schuster package which includes new titles about Lincoln, Taney, and the War of 1812.  I expect to find my package at the front door later this afternoon.  Let’s admit that there is something flattering about being singled out by a major publisher, though as Sean Dail explains it is clearly in their interest to take advantage of the blogosphere.  As I see it the publisher probably doesn’t need to worry about any negative assessments of their books; it may be enough that the book is referenced and linked to by others. 

It does, however, raise some interesting questions about our responsibility in providing analytical or critical reviews of these texts – if we choose to review them at all.  Let’s face it, the value of three new hardback books is somewhere around $90 and one may be tempted to be more praiseworthy given the possibility of additional preview copies.  I’ve received a number of preview copies and make it clear to the publisher that the book will receive a critical assessment.  In the case of David Eicher’s new book I wrote a very negative review since I thought it was an overall disappointment.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I never see another book from Little Brown. 

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A Message To The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star: JUST SAY NO

I know that newspapers operating in the heart of Civil War country feature articles and letters to the editor to attract readers, but there is no reason to print the kind of drivel that has appeared in the last few weeks in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  Now that I think of it a series of articles on secession back in November 2005 was the subject of one of my earliest posts.  The subject of recent weeks has been Robert E. Lee.  Here is a small sample of letters to the editor for your enjoyment.

From 10/12/06: Returning home from a church meeting, Lee sat at the supper table and was about to say grace. The general could not say a word and slumped down in his chair. It is believed that he had a stroke.  It has been written that Lee’s grief for the Southern people, some of whom were made poor by the War Between the States, may have contributed to his failing health.

From 10/16/06: While Lee was an undeniably talented military leader and an honorable man by the standards of his time, no amount of mythology and hero worship can obscure the fact that Robert E. Lee led the armed struggle to keep black people in bondage.

From 10/23/06:The seceding states were not seeking to overthrow the federal government, but were reclaiming the rights they had voluntarily granted to the federal government.  Gen. Lee certainly respected that and the 10th Amendment.  Sad to say, President Lincoln sent federal troops into Maryland’s state capital in order to prevent Maryland’s right to decide for or against secession.  Lincoln also deployed "terrorism" in order to cripple the South, through William Sherman’s leadership.  Significant enough, criminals were released to join Union ranks and would have been among the "terrorists."  And yet Lincoln, unconstitutionally, established tribunals for "Northerners" who sympathized with the seceding states.  Gen. Lee surely understood the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government, whereas President Lincoln disregarded the Constitution.  The founders gave us a constitutional republic, not a constitutional monarchy.

From 10/24/06: I know of no one with the slightest knowledge of history who would agree with such nonsense. To suggest that Lee did not do his duty is beyond ridiculous.  Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest Virginians and Americans who ever lived.   As a loving father (read "Lee’s Daughters"), devoted husband and son (one need only read surviving letters), educator, nation’s healer, and one of the finest military generals of all time, Robert E. Lee stands as one of the greatest men in history. He was truly a hero.  I’ve taught my children and my students about his character and dedication. We should all strive to emulate those qualities.  Robert E. Lee essentially gave up every material possession to defend his family and native state.  He was opposed to secession and slavery, but he could not aid a foreign country that was illegally invading Virginia.

Who needs Douglas S. Freeman, Emory Thomas, Thomas Connelly, Gary Gallagher, Michael Fellman, and Richard McClaslin when you have the good readers of the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  Is this what Carl Becker had in mind when he used the phrase, "Everyman His Own Historian"?

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Civil War Fathers

Today my Civil War class discussed an article by James Marten on fathers and their attempts to maintain a meaningful connection with their families, especially their children.  The article is titled, "Let Me Edge Into Your Bright Fire," which appeared in North and South magazine back in September 1997.  The article provides an overview of his much larger work titled, The Children’s Civil War (1998).  In years past my classes have really enjoyed this article; in fact one year we saved our discussion for our lunch break during our tour of the Chancellorsville battlefield.  This year, for some reason, they were less enthusiastic.  One student commented that the analysis was not surprising and wondered why the story needed to be told.  We focused on the thesis to gain some clarity as to Marten’s research agenda:

Confederate and Union fathers mourned the loss of daily contact with their sons and daughters the way they would mourn the loss of a limb in combat.  But, as their correspondence with their families so touchingly reveals, they refused to give up their paternal roles.  Their letters home reveal a side of Civil War soldiers unexplored in most accounts of their lives: their love for their children, their determination to remain important figures in their children’s lives, their startlingly "modern" approach to childrearing.  These were not the distant Victorian fathers that we so often read about, but men deeply engaged in the raising of their sons and daughters.  Civil War soldiers fought to remain fathers in deed as well as in name and filled their letters with affection and advice. This was a vital part of their self-images and one cannot fully understand the men who the blue and gray unless one realizes how important their families were to them.

We discussed the crucial historiographical point that historians have ignored this aspect of soldier’s lives in favor of themes that connect more directly with the battlefield; most of the students understood that Marten’s analysis filled in a crucial gap, but still, they were not impressed with his examples.  One of the students shared that the various ways that soldiers kept in touch or tried to remain part of their children’s lives was predictable. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but then I realized that they are looking at this topic at a time when the family backgrounds of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is front page news.  The major news outlets have focused on these types of human interest stories since the beginning of the war.  Our local news regularly runs stories about how families on the home front maintain contact with their loved ones overseas.    The sadness of long-term separation and the horrors of some of their wounds has been exploited much too often, but unfortunately that’s what keeps people tuned in.  In short, my students see soldiers as family members and it was an eye-opening realization for me.

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Flags of our [White] Fathers?

We’ve come a long way since the stupefied looks on people’s faces as they walked out of the movie theater back in 1989 asking: "Did black people really fight in the Civil War?"  Now we look to see if movies are racially inclusive.  Looks like Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the battle of Iwo Jima is receiving some flack for failing to include black actors that reflect their presence during the battle.   

Nearly a thousand African-Americans took part in the battle and hundreds more played vital support roles. Yet in the sprawling two-hour plus film, no black combatant is seen. This continues the insulting and infuriating pattern in books, films, and TV movies in which the monumental contributions that black men and women made to the fighting in the Pacific and Europe have downplayed, ignored, or deliberately whitewashed.

The invisibility of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, and indeed, the legions of other bio-pic movies on World War II is no surprise to the many black vets that know the true story of the war. They have taken every opportunity they’ve gotten to protest the sanitizing.

Are critics being too sensitive?  I think not.  My students are still shocked to learn that black men fought with George Washington during the Revolution and that significant numbers fought in the Civil War and World War I.  Why exactly are they surprised?

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