Should Virginia Commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial?

Perhaps this seems like an odd question to ask given my interest in the Civil War, teaching, and limited role as an adviser to Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission, but I think it is useful to ask the tough questions if only to clarify its purpose and intent.  Why should we commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial?  Organizers on the state level here in Virginia have already come to some agreement on the broad answer to how the Sesquicentennial will be remembered and are working to ensure that the activities and programs reflect these broad principles.  James I. Robertson, Charles Bryan and others have already spoken eloquently about the need to commemorate rather than celebrate the Civil War era.  Advisor’s to the Commission are committed to making education. along with the tough questions of race and slavery, central components within the various forms of remembrance and commemoration.  This stands in sharp contrast to the approach that organizers of the Civil War Centennial took back in the early 1960s and in part explains its failure.  While I support the work of the Commission I think we have to admit that we still do not have an answer to the question of whether the Civil War should be commemorated on such a scale beginning in 2011.

I say this because I also wonder whether the Civil War should have been celebrated in the 1960s.  The Centennial was marked by a great deal of controversy between those who viewed it as a way to simply attract tourists and their dollars/entertainment and those who hoped to bring a more scholarly bent to the various events.  The big boogey man in the room was race/memory of slavery and few could agree on how to address the fact that ongoing protests and marches were reflective of the distorted legacy of the war.  The upshot was an entire segment of the population that felt alienated by or failed to identify with a historical narrative devoid of any mention of slavery and race.  Perhaps the entertainment wrought by reenactments, rebel yells, Lincoln impersonators did not trump the continued damage done by a nation that was unwilling to deal with the tough questions.  In short the Civil War Centennial was planned by and for white Americans.

This time around the various Sesquicentennial Committees include women, black Americans, and other ethnicities, and this expansion of the base has already led to fruitful discussions and ideas.  The question I have is whether the general public is ready or even interested in this Civil War.  Of course, the question should not be framed as an all or nothing proposition, but the form that the Sesquicentennial takes must approach the expectations of the general public or at least that segment of the general public that is likely to be interested.  After all, the programs included will be funded by the state’s taxpayers.  Fundamental challenges include the selling of the Sesquicentennial to groups that have been excluded from public memory of the war, particularly black Americans, along with the acknowledgment that most people’s understanding of the war has not evolved beyond the broad outlines of the war that were featured during the Centennial. 

I’ve said before that my hopes for the Sesquicentennial are quite modest.  I am looking forward to the various educational initiatives that will benefit both historians and classrooms.  I have very little interest in being entertained and absolutely no interest in celebrating the war.  You will not find me toasting Lee and Grant or Lincoln and Davis.  If you happen to see me doing so please feel free to put a bullet in my head. 

So, back to the initial question of whether we should commemorate the Civil War.  Let me put it this way, if I discovered tomorrow that all plans were off I would not lose one moment of sleep. 

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Why It Is Important To Ask the Right Question

The latest issue of Civil War Times Illustrated features an article about Patrick Cleburne’s suggestion to arm the slave population.  The cover advertises the piece with the following question: "Should the South Have Armed Its Slaves?"  The question itself betrays a complete lack of understanding as to why this issue was so controversial and why it never happened until very close to the end of the war.  And even when it did the decision on the part of Confederate officials to enlist slaves resulted in very few numbers.  More to the point, however, the question reflects the tendency of so many to view military affairs or questions related to the military in a vacuum.  This is another example of the "If-only the Confederacy had done x" philosophy.  The question isn’t should the recruitment of slaves into the army have taken place, the question is, rather, could it have done so at some point earlier in the war.   


Looks Like Harold Holzer

is becoming Dimitri Rotov’s new James McPherson.  Apparently Dimitri discovered his personal website, but what I was dumbfounded to read on his blog was a criticism of Holzer’s latest edited collection.  There is no evidence that Dimitri has read it, but he feels qualified to make the following statement:

With the advent of the Bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, we are racing towards a huge substance deficit, one which this book appears to be feeding. How many more clapped-together essay collections are going to be branded by such as Holzer to then die an unlamented, humiliating sales death, in fact, to poison booksellers against the very topic of Lincoln, before the Bicentennial even arrives?

I actually own this book and have read through four of the essays.  Some are better than others, which is about right when it comes to edited collections.  That said, the book – which concentrates on emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment – includes essays by some of the leading scholars in the field of Lincoln studies.  I am planning to use Phil Paludan’s piece in my Lincoln course.  I have no problem at all with criticism, but this kind of assessment is nothing more than drivel.


Jean H. Baker, Women’s History, and Mary T. Lincoln

This week my Lincoln class is exploring Lincoln’s courtship and marriage to Mary Todd.  I was surprised to learn that a few of my students actually have preconceptions about this marriage and that they conform to the general belief that it was a rocky relationship and particularly difficult for Abraham Lincoln given the personality of Mary Todd.  Our reading of William Gienapp’s short but thorough biography of Lincoln reinforced these common assumptions.  As a way to challenge some of these preconceptions I had my class read an article by Jean H. Baker who is the author of one of the only scholarly full-length biographies of Mary Todd.

In the first part of the article Baker explains what she takes to be the fundamental problem for Lincoln scholars when analyzing their marriage:

Mostly the depictions of the Lincoln marriage as a disaster focus on Mary Todd Lincoln’s failings.  Of course, it has always been women who are held responsible for the quality of a marriage, for many reasons not the least of which is that men write history and have especially controlled the Lincoln story. [(p. 37) references are to Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma]

Baker goes on to suggest that this bias has helped fuel the ever popular image of Lincoln as the “martyr of American mythology.”  Not only did Lincoln “save the Union” but he did so in an unhealthy and unhappy relationship.  She is particularly critical of Douglas Wilson and Michael Burlingame who place much of the blame on a supposed unstable relationship on Mary Todd specifically.  Both historians emphasize other women including the popular Ann Rutledge and even emphasize lesser known figures such as Mathilda Edwards and Sarah Rickard.  The upshot, according to Baker is “Lincoln, a man universally viewed as uncomfortable with women, is transformed into a veritable Don Juan.”  Baker concludes that the explanations of Burlingame, Wilson and others tell us more about how they choose to view their marriage than about Lincoln’s marriage specifically:

My response is that we have too many historians deciding that they don’t like Mary Lincoln and with extraordinary vehemence extrapolating their personal judgments onto the marriage.  Douglas Wilson and Michael Burlingame don’t like Mary Lincoln; that does not mean that Abraham Lincoln did not, nor more relevantly, does it mean that the compact that Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln fashioned in the nearly 23 years of marriage was not a satisfying one from which both partners gained emotional support, physical satisfaction, and intellectual intimacy. (pp. 37-38)

The class had a field day with this introductory section of her argument.  It also served as a lesson on how to structure an analytical essay.  I asked the students to think about Baker’s strategy of first criticizing how others have analyzed the Lincoln marriage and then offering her own interpretation.  More interesting, however, is Baker’s suggestion that gender has influenced previous Lincoln studies.  There was a hint of defensiveness among some of the male students, but I was able to keep them focused on the main points of the argument.  I gave the class a basic overview of gender history and its very recent introduction to the academic landscape.  In doing so I emphasized both the possibility of biological differences between the way men and women interpret their environments along with the more practical considerations of what counts as legitimate historical topics or questions.  One student argued that Baker was moving too far in the opposite direction and another suggested that there was too close an identification with Mary Todd which perhaps compromised her own claims to objectivity.

We had a wonderful discussion about these and related issues, but in the end it came down to the question of whether Baker could offer a more convincing thesis.  According to Baker, the missing element is historical context rather than an emphasis on “the battle of the quotations” which highlight various claims made by Lincoln that do point to a difficult marriage: “In what follows I would like to place the Lincoln marriage in the context of the scholarship that we have on courtship, wedding, marriage, and parenting, using mostly the words and behaviors of the marriage’s two principals and avoiding memories of their contemporaries.” (pp. 40-41)

Without getting into too much detail Baker proceeds to counter the standard interpretations of Lincoln’s “cold feet” shortly before the scheduled wedding along with the suddenness of the actual wedding ceremony.  Lincoln’s decision to end their courtship is explained by pointing out that delays were actually quite common at this time, and as for the “spur of the moment” decision to finally go ahead with the ceremony in 1842 reflected the fact there “was no standardized wedding ritual.” The other thing that Baker does in this piece is ask her reader to examine the story from a different perspective:

Burlingame and Wilson ask the question, how could Lincoln have married such a dreadful woman?  But we could ask as well, what did Mary Todd see in Abraham Lincoln, the hardly handsome or gentrified product of the prairies of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois who still wore pants that were too short and who once burst into a party saying the “girls smelt good.”

That passage alone raised quite a number of eyebrows as it drove home her central point that it is men who have defined the very questions we ask when interpreting Lincoln’s courtship and marriage to Mary Todd.

I am going to end this post here so as not to give too much away.  In other words, read Baker’s biography as it is the product of a talented and thoughtful historian.  It’s enough to say that she is giving my class a great deal to think about.  I’ve also decided to use this article at the beginning of my Women’s History course next semester.  It addresses the essential questions or relevancy of gender history/studies.


Two Very Different Rebels

Check out Stephen Hahn’s review of new biographies of Robert E. Lee and Toussaint Louverture in the New Republic

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