Education Is Wasted On The Young

How can a committed high school history teacher make such a claim?  Well, this post is really about my brother.  My brother is a few years younger and last year he decided to make a major change in his life.  He was trained as a chef and over the past 15 years had managed to rise in the profession to executive chef in one of the largest hotel companies.  For much of that time my brother was devoted to his profession and worked hard to stay on top of his craft.  I’ve always admired his ability to stay cool in a profession that allows for few mistakes and demands strong organizational skills.  More recently he began to grow tired of the job and worried that perhaps it was time for a change.  I find that most people are content with their professions even if the payoff provides little satisfaction.  That’s why I was so surprised and pleased to hear last year that my brother planned to leave his job and go back and finish his college degree.  And what is he interested in doing?  He wants to TEACH HIGH SCHOOL HISTORY! 

This was not an easy decision for him to make.  He earned a great salary and the thought of having to give up such a lifestyle could not have been easy.  This past summer he completed his Associates Degree and is now enrolled in one of New Jersey’s state universities and is majoring in history with an emphasis on education.  My brother loves history, but there is much to adjust to, including a classroom full of younger students, and the challenge of having to study on a regular basis.  I’ve been reading a few of his papers just to help with citations and style.  Though his papers need to be polished you can tell that he is hooked and is enjoying the challenge.  I’m sure his professors will enjoy having him in the classroom.  I have no doubt that he will make an excellent teacher.

I’ve been known to tell my students that part of the trick to figuring out the problem of life is to find a job that reflects their passion.  Their tendency to concentrate on material wealth or a measure of success as dictated by their parents or society in general is the biggest roadblock to this process.  In many ways my job is an extension of my personality and broad interests.  It is sometimes difficult to know where my job and my passion for history come together.  My brother was brave enough in his mid-30′s to take a chance and try to make that happen, and I am going to help him in any way I can.  The likelihood that we will share the same profession at some point may bring us even closer together. 

Well Done Bro.

A Heart-Wrenching Decision?

One of the classic strands of Civil War Entertainment is the story of Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army in the wake of Fort Sumter and Virginia’s decision to secede.  We are supposed to revel in the tragedy as Lee realizes that the pull of his state is more influential than the oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  We celebrate his decision even as we ignore any questions of whether there were alternatives, and more importantly, we lose any opportunity to assess Lee’s decision within the context of how other Virginians judged their respective allegiances.  Although I’ve been critical of Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, I do think that the chapter on Lee’s decision to resign and his subsequent decision to accept a commission from the state of Virginia is worth serious consideration. 

A new article by Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh titled "’I Owe Virginia Little, My Country Much’: Robert E. Lee, the United States Regular Army, and Unconditional Unionism" examines Lee’s decision along with the decisions of other Virginians who were in similar circumstances.  [He teaches history at the Naval Academy and maintains a blog on the L.A. Dodgers.]  The article appears in the recently-released edited volume, Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration and is edited by Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, and Andrew Torget.  The collections brings together essays from former University of Virginia graduates and current PhD candidates in the history department.  I’ve read through about half of the essay and it is clear that this is a strong collection.  Back to Lee.  Here are a few key passages from the article:

Although [Douglas] Freeman and [Charles Francis] Adams cited Lee’s Virginia loyalties as reason enough for his conduct, many other Virginians with regular army backgrounds stayed loyal to the government that they had all at one point or another sworn to serve.  These Unionist officers raise important questions about whether or not we can cite regional origin to explain and, at times, to justify and individual’s conduct during the secession crisis. After all, many of these men experienced the same personal and regional pressures to secede that Lee experienced, but they chose familial estrangement and regional ostracism for the sake of the uniform that Robert E. Lee repudiated. (p. 36)

The author examines the individual experiences of Southern Unionists such as George H. Thomas Rufus Terrill, Philip St. George Cooke, and Winfield Scott.  It’s Wei-Siang Hsieh’s statistical analysis that forces the reader to step back and re-examine what Lee’s decision to resign means. 

Of all Southern officers connected to a seceded state, 60 out of 300 stayed in the Union leaving 200 in Confederate service.  Of the 487 graduates of West Point who were affiliated with a seceded state, 173 stayed loyal to the Union and 251 aligned themselves with the Confederacy. If we consider Lee’s age, length of service and location in the Upper South, the author concludes that a decision to stay in the Union would have seemed more likely:

Twenty-seven of 90 slave-state West Point graduates (30 percent) of the Classes of 1830 and before joined the Confederacy (Lee was in the Class of 1829), while 224 of 397 graduates (56 percent) of the classes of 1831 to 1860 did the same.  Even when we look at Virginians, the statistics continue to point to Lee staying with the Union.  While 9 of 27 (33 percent) Virginian graduates of West Point classes up to  and including the class of 1830 went Confederate, a higher percentage of older graduates stayed with the Union: 13 of 27 (48 percent). Lee’s behavior better fit the profile of a younger West Pointer from Virginia.  Sixty-one of 99 (62 percent) Virginian graduates of the Classes of 1831 to 1860 went Confederate, while 31 of 99 (31 percent) stayed with the Union. (p. 47)

So, what are we to make of the data.  Well, whatever we do with it, it is going to be difficult to view Lee’s decision in a vacuum.  It seems silly to simply reduce the issue down to the level of honor, allegiance to state, etc as a sufficient reason.  A significant minority of Virginians in the military dealt with the very same issues and drew very different conclusions.  The drama behind Lee’s difficult decision (one that we are supposed to believe was the only decision he could make) fades away in the sense that its mere consideration raises his character above all others. Finally, the emphasis on Lee’s infallibility as reflected in this decision highlights the postwar mythologizing that created the "marble man" image and the sanctity that comes along with it. 

Note: My Civil War class has finished with Virginia’s secession (we read William Freehling’s North and South article on this) so we are ready to analyze the mobilization of the armies and the summer of ’61.  Perhaps I will show how Ken Burns treats Lee’s decision to resign and then introduce them to the above data.  This should make for an interesting lesson.

What Kinds Of Civil War Studies Should University Presses Publish?

I just received the latest issue of the Journal of American History (September 2006) and was perusing through the Book Reviews when I came across an interesting review of Scott Walker’s Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia: Survival in a Civil War Regiment.  The book was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2005.  The review was mixed.  [By the way UGA now has a blog site.]  Before continuing I should point out that the JAH is published by the Organization of  American Historians so it stands to reason that most of the people who read this particular journal are professional historians.

On the one hand the reviewer complimented Walker for his ability to tell a good story and his focus on the experiences of the soldiers themselves.  The criticisms, however, centered as much on the publisher as the lack of analysis contained in the book.  Here are a few excerpts from the review:

Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia deserved to be published, but not by an academic press because the author failed to engage in a single scholarly debate about the common Civil War solder.  Soldier motivation, desertion, the psychological trauma of combat, and Confederate nationalism are issues discussed, but they are not interpreted in a broader historiographical framework….

Popular history deserves to be published by academic presses as part of a broader scholarly offensive to reach a wider audience.  We should not, however, dilute our standards when it comes to what constitutes “good” popular history.  We must insist on deep analysis and thorough research, as well as a readable narrative.  In many cases, this book fails to meet such standards.  Most of the chapters are sparsely footnoted, manuscript research is minimal, and the author did not consult the voluminous regimental resources at the National Archives.

I read the book and had some of the same concerns that were expressed above; however, I did not question whether it was an appropriate study for an academic press.  The book clearly did not rise to the level of Earl Hess’s Lee’s Tar Heels (UNC Press) or Mark Dunkelman’s Brothers One and All (LSU Press).  Notice that the reviewer is not suggesting that academic presses should not publish non-professional historians; the concern is the content of the study itself.  It should be noted that the books jacket reviews are written by professional historians who are or were connected with universities and other research institutions.

“The letters, diaries, and other information Scott Walker located and utilized on the soldiers and families of the 57th Georgia infantry are among the finest I’ve ever encountered. He has done complete justice to these superb primary sources by writing a narrative that is richly descriptive yet focused and restrained. Walker allows the soldiers and their families to speak for themselves while placing their words and deeds in a clear and meaningful context.”
T. Michael Parrish,
Bowers Professor of History, Baylor University

“Civil War regimental histories are thick on the ground now, but Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia is a different sort of creature, a penetrating look at the inner world and lives of men who marched, ate, slept, fought, and died together. Not so much a unit history as a ‘family’ portrait of
men bound by the war, Scott Walker’s book offers a glimpse of the personality and inner world of almost all Civil War units, North and South alike. This is the part of regimental history that too many regimental historians overlook.”

William C. Davis, Director of Programs,
Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, Virginia Tech

“Scott Walker has produced history that is at the same time very old and quite new. He relies upon a rich trove of letters and diaries to focus his narrative upon the coming-of-age experiences and vivid observations of men and boys who served in the Fifty-seventh Georgia Infantry Regiment. Walker also offers a species of the ‘new’ military history—a drama set in blood and mud instead of command posts in which common soldiers instead of generals are the principal characters. This is an excellent book.”
Emory M. Thomas, author of Robert E. Lee: A Biography

This is an interesting question and hits at the divide that separates the general reading public along with the historians who write their books and the academic world which is interested in a more analytical-type study.  I honestly don’t know where I stand on this one.

The Real Price Of Forgetting The Past

My classes are now exploring the origins of slavery in the colonies.  We are examining specifically the process by which Virginia evolved from a society with slaves to a slave society.  Here in Virginia this involves the fairly sharp transition from indentured servants to black slaves in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, which took place in 1676.  I make it a point to emphasize the fact that the study of black history and slavery has a relatively short past that goes back to the 1960′s.  Students are asked to think of reasons as to why this is the case.  Most do not have a frame of reference, but once in awhile a student will focus in on access to education for black Americans and the introduction of African-American scholars and programs in black history.  The focus on slavery in their textbooks is an even more recent phenomenon.  This is important since it drives home the various factors that determine which groups are emphasized in their textbooks and why.  It is easy from this perspective to appreciate the dangers and consequences of intentionally ignoring large sections of the past.

But what are those consequences?  Let me mention one example that I came across a few months back and even briefly blogged about it at the time.  The story is related to the issue of black Confederates and one of its most fervent advocates.   His name is H. K. Edgerton and what makes him so interesting is that he is African-American.  Now, before I continue I should point out that I have never met this individual nor do I claim to have any knowledge about his motivation.  Here is a brief biography of Edgerton from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

H.K. Edgerton speaks wistfully of the “sense of family” that bound blacks and whites under slavery. There was great “love between the African who was here in the Southland and his master,” he says.  Despite its poor reviews, Edgerton concludes, slavery served as an “institution of learning” for blacks. Edgerton sounds a lot like other apologists for slavery — many of whom, like him, pledge allegiance to the Confederate battle flag and the movement around it. But he stands out from this crowd in some significant ways.  For starters, he’s black.  And Edgerton is also the former president of the Asheville, N.C., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — a group that fellow neo-Confederate Arthur Ravenal, a white South Carolina state senator, described this year as the “National Association of Retarded People.”  Edgerton sees no contradictions here. In an interview with the Intelligence Report, he insisted that he’s doing his part to “correct the lies” when he suggests that “it was better to be an African in the Southland as a slave than to be free in Africa.” He’s speaking as a “favored son of the South,” he said, when he addresses Confederate flag rallies from North Carolina to Georgia to Texas.  In a lily-white movement that most blacks find deeply offensive, Edgerton seems to feel quite at home. And as he dances to the tune of “Dixie” — sometimes quite literally — he helps gives the cause the appearance of legitimacy.  It is a gloss that frequently racist neo-Confederate groups desperately need in order to maintain the idea that theirs is a movement that celebrates “heritage, not hate.”

In 2002 Edgerton walked 1,300 miles from Asheville, North Carolina to Austin, Texas in support of Southern Heritage. Edgerton can also be seen on products such as t-shirts sold by Dixie Outfitters, which I find absolutely baffling.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what Edgerton’s ardent support of a narrow Southern/Confederate past means in light of my comments at the beginning of this post.  Perhaps his support of the idea of black Confederates can be explained by some deep need to identify with and locate a place for himself within the Southern past.  [Notice once again how quickly the Southern past reduces to the four years of the Confederacy.]  Of course, one could identify with any number of regions and/or times in that past, but it is no surprise that the Civil War looms large here.  After all it comes pre-packaged with stories of battlefield heroics and sacrifice that have proven attractive to so many – especially men.

What I find so depressing at the root of all of this is the apparent desperation on the part of Edgerton to find a home in the past through a white narrative of the Civil War that tends to ignore both the role of slavery as its cause and the importance of emancipation followed by the continued struggles for basic civil rights by African Americans after the Civil War.  It’s as if those who push the black Confederate story are only willing to acknowledge black agency if it somehow conforms in a way that supports their own agenda.  From what we know tens of thousands of black slaves risked their lives by running away from their farms and plantations towards Union lines.  If that isn’t a story that begs for some kind of personal identification I don’t know what is.  Why doesn’t Edgerton march across the South with that message?  If our broader national narrative is about the struggle to realize our founding principles as contained in the Declaration of Independence than the story of African Americans has much to teach us.

Edgerton’s overly zealous identification can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with the American past.  But if that past has been sharply edited and controlled by one race as a means to maintain a racial hierarchy than is it any surprise that Edgerton is willing to interact with white Southerners who, for a number of reasons, are pushing the wild conclusion that large numbers of black Southerners fought in Confederate armies?  I wonder whether he was taught about the multiple and meaningful ways in which slaves and other free black Americans influenced the outcome of the Civil War and added to our national narrative.  Is glory and admiration really only to be found in a story that is so far-fetched that only a small handful of people support?

When I teach about the Civil War I try to bring as much agency to the actions of African Americans as possible. The reason, of course, is that most of my students know next to nothing about African-American history and at times that story is absolutely crucial to understanding how the nation evolved along racial, political, and economic lines.  The other reason is that there is a great deal to be proud of and to identify with and to hold up for its moral value.

Bob Dylan’s Civil War

I can’t believe that it took me so long to discover the music of Bob Dylan.  The recent Martin Scorsese Moderntimescvr200 documentary No Direction Home which aired on PBS, along with my colleague John Amos, served as the trigger.  I’ve been hooked ever since.  The most recent release – titled "Modern Times" – is absolutely brilliant.  It is hard to believe that Dylan is still able to produce high-quality and thoughtful music.  Today’s New York Times reports that Dylan seems to have "borrowed" some of his lyrics from Southern poet Henry Timrod:

Henry Timrod was born in 1828 and was a private tutor on plantations before the Civil War started. He tried to sign up for the Confederate Army but was unable to serve in the field because he suffered from tuberculosis. He worked as an editor for a daily paper in Columbia, S.C., and began writing poems about the war and how it affected the residents of the South. He also wrote love poems and ruminations on nature. During his lifetime he published only one volume of poetry. Among his most famous poems were “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina 1866,” and “Ethnogenesis.”

Mr. Dylan has long been interested in the Civil War: in “Chronicles: Vol. 1,” Mr. Dylan’s autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster in 2004, he writes about spending time in the New York Times combing through microfilm copies of newspapers published from 1855 to 1865. “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone,” Mr. Dylan wrote.

I just purchased tickets to see Dylan in Fairfax, Virginia in November.  Although I’ve heard that his voice is not what it used to be live, it will be enough to be in the same room with a real American icon.  Go out and pick up his latest release.  You won’t be disappointed.