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Mark Your Calendars

Next Tuesday (July 10) I will be speaking at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable.  The subject of my presentation will be William Mahone’s postwar career, specifically his entry into Virginia politics, and its effect on his military record.  Additional information can be found here

Allo Mes Amis

My wife and I have returned from a 5-day trip to Montreal for the Jazz festival.  We had an incredible time.  The weather was fairly sunny with temperatures averaging in the low-70s.  This was our first trip to Montreal and with the sound of French in the air we got just a sense of being further from the United States than we actually were.  We stayed at the Ritz Carlton on Rue Sherbrooke, which was in walking distance to most of the downtown sites.  Our mornings were spent in small cafes for breakfast and in the afternoon we walked through different neighborhoods and took in some of the more touristy sites.  On most days we ended up back in a small cafe where we ate croissant, drank coffee, talked, and read.  On Saturday we walked through an art museum and on Sunday we caught a wonderful parade in recognition of Canada Day.  The food was simply outrageous; there were way too many restaurants to choose from.  We had an excellent Italian meal at La Capannina where I discovered a delicious Pinot Grigio w/ Verduzzo by the name of Masi Masianco from Venice.  If you are looking for Indian may I suggest The Taj and for Lebanese there is a wonderful restaurant on Rue Sherbrooke.  The city itself is very relaxed and McGill University gives it a scholarly feel.  The people were extremely friendly.  I say this because a number of people went out of their way to warn me regarding the snootiness of the French Canadians.  Actually, we did not come across any rudeness or hostility, though it probably doesn’t hurt that my wife speaks French.  We had a number of very pleasant conversations with the locals.

Everything revolved around the jazz festival.  You can spend an entire day taking in free concerts on the many stages which take up roughly five city blocks.  These musicians don’t get nearly enough recognition nor financial reward.  The festival attracts people from all around the world, it is family friendly, and the security is present without being overly intrusive.  We arrived in Montreal with tickets for Keith Jarrett who performed on Sunday evening.  We were surprised to find that tickets were still available for most shows.  Before sharing who we saw I should say that although I’ve been listening to jazz since high school it’s only been in the last ten years that my understanding and appreciation of the form has grown and this is due in large part to my wife who is a classical and jazz-trained saxophonist.  Michaela is a talented musician in her own right, but she also knows how to share that passion with others both in terms of the history of jazz and its structure.

On Friday night we saw the Wayne Shorter Quartet which included Brian Blade (drums), John Patituci (bass), Danilo Perez (piano), and the Imani Winds.  We’ve seen Perez and Patituci before, but it was a real treat to see them play with Wayne Shorter whose musical compositions are anything but traditional.  On Saturday evening we saw guitar virtuoso Mike Stern, along with Perez, Patituci, and Dave Weckl (drums).  Stern puts on an entertaining show and really seems to enjoy himself on stage.  He has an incredible sense of rhythm and he is somehow able to combine jazz, rock, and fusion in a way that never seems contrived.  Again it was interesting to watch Perez and Patituci adapt to a very different style of play.  Last night we caught Mike Stern once again, but this time he was with Roy Hargrove (trumpet) and Richard Bona (bass) along with Weckl.  It was another solid show.  At one point Bona did a solo which shaded into a solo vocal performance of a west African folk song.  Bona looped and layered at least 10 harmonies that left the crowd in awe.  These musicians don’t get nearly enough recognition nor financial reward.

As I mentioned before we also saw Keith Jarrett along with his regular team of Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Gary Peacock (bass).  Jarrett’s ballads are beautifully crafted, however, I suspect that many people will remember his comments towards the end of the concert.  Announcements are made before every show reminding the audience not to take pictures.  At least two camera flashes could be seen within a few minutes of the concert; at the end a number of people took the liberty of snapping pictures and this apparently upset Jarrett.  When he came back out he announced sharply that the concert would end if the people did not “put their fucking cameras away.”  I was a bit stunned by the comment but Jarrett proceeded to predict what the “French newspapers” would have to say about all of this the next day.  Perhaps in trying to make-up for his choice words Jarrett ended the show with two encores.

I can’t think of a better way than to spend five days with my best friend.  Some photos of the trip can be found at my flickr.

Civil War Literature Blog

I don’t keep track of every Civil War related blog as it is simply impossible to do.  The list in my sidebar constitutes the sites that I regularly check out; on occasion I go beyond to additional linked sites to see what’s happening.  I prefer those blogs that force me to think critically about history and related subjects.  On that note I highly recommend Craig A. Warren’s new blog, Civil War Literature.  The first few posts are incredibly thoughtful and focus on Craig’s interest in how fiction captures the past and continues to shape our own perceptions.

Craig teaches at Penn State Erie and is the creator of the Ambrose Bierce Project.  The site also contains an e-Journal which he edits.  I am slated to contribute an essay for the next issue (December 2007) which will explore Ambrose Bierce and Civil War memory.  If you have time check out the journal as the essays are first-rate. 

The Ethics of Civil War Memory

My talk on Friday at the Civil War Memory conference focused specifically on memory and USCTs at the Crater.  I examined both how and why black soldiers were left out of public commemorations and written accounts of the battle by the turn of the twentieth century.  Towards the end I briefly touched on what I believe to be the moral significance of memory studies.  In the past I’ve shied away from being too explicit about what ultimately drives me in my historical pursuits.  Here are the final few paragraphs for your consideration:

As a case study of American Civil War memory the story of the Crater allows us to see more clearly the ways in which history is often used for purposes that have little to do with a desire to tell an accurate and balanced story of the past. More importantly, an analysis of how the battle has been remembered highlights those interpretive strands that were acknowledged and ultimately reinforced as well as those that were intentionally ignored.

Part of the process of writing about Civil War memory is to suggest what was possible. The collective memory of the Civil War and the Crater in particular could have evolved in any number of ways. That it did evolve in a certain way serves to remind us of how important it is to step back on occasion and ask how that narrative evolved and why. Only then is it possible to acknowledge shortcomings in the interpretation and make necessary corrections that more accurately reflect the historical record.

Disagreements surrounding how to interpret and remember the racial component of the battle of the Crater points to the extent to which Americans continue to perceive the Civil War as a chivalrous contest between white Northerners and Southerners. While the tendency to suppress uncomfortable facts about race may help render the story palatable it can only do so by sacrificing salient aspects of the history. More importantly, it suggests that until we are prepared to confront important issues of race in our Civil War and elsewhere we will continue to struggle to engage in honest dialogue about race in our society today.

I don’t see how anyone can study the evolution of our memories of the Civil War without acknowledging the moral/political implications for our own time.  Now I don’t think there is anything in these brief comments that is prescriptive for a specific set of changes.  In other words, nothing stated above suggests or implies a social policy or other public act.  I think it is enough to create the mental space which makes it possible to think critically about the implications surrounding the way in which our historical narratives serve to bring about and reinforce various political and social ends.

While some may be concerned that such a statement on my part betrays a lack of objectivity or a commitment to a certain set of political principles, I don’t believe there is a necessary conflict.  First, I don’t hold to a traditional belief that interprets objectivity as some kind of metaphysical space in which the individual comes in touch with an independent reality.  There is no historical “in and of itself.”  A more realistic understanding of historical objectivity involves a continuous commitment to remaining open to revision or willingness to be surprised by the available evidence.  There doesn’t seem to me to be anything necessarily wrong with claiming a moral purpose behind one’s historical scholarship and maintaining the integrity of a serious researcher.

[photograph, from left to right: me, historian Mark Snell, Councilman Frank Smith Jr. and historian Roger Davidson – Smith was one of the leaders behind the commission and placement of the monument to African-American soldiers and the Civil War (Washington, D.C.]