Another Goofy Scene From Gods and Generals

We are almost finished with Gods and Generals.  I’ve actually never scene most of the second half since I walked out of the theater just before intermission when it first ran in theaters.  There is an interesting scene involving Stonewall Jackson and Sandie Pendleton in which they discuss just what is at stake if the Confederacy fails in its bid for independence.  Jackson makes it clear that if the "Yankees" lose they still get to all go home with their "profits" from the war effort.  This is obviously an attempt to reduce the cause of the United States government to one of profit and greed as opposed to the Confederacy which was attempting to save a "nation" as Jackson suggests in the scene.  Unfortunately, this contrast seems to be alive and well in many Civil War circles to this day.  We love to contrast the "Old South" of peaceful plantations with the industrial North.  The point of the movie in contrasting the Confederacy and the United States in such a way is to suggest that the latter’s cause did not rise to an abstract level of political principle, but was rooted in the physical world of ego and greed.  Let’s forget that the overwhelming number of Northerners farmed for a living and that not everyone in the South yearned for a society void of industry.  Many young Virginians argued that limited industrial growth would place the Commonwealth back in its rightful place as a national leader.  Such generalizations about regions and the people who reside therein is what animates Gods and Generals and that is why it is such a dangerous movie.  It simply reinforces these stereotypes and gives the back of its hand to more complex dialogue. 

Another strange scene takes place on the Rappahanock River between a lone Confederate and Union soldier who exchange tobacco and coffee.  There is not one word spoken as the two men sample the others offering.  Somehow the viewer is supposed to believe that everything that needs to be said can be conveyed visually.  I remember being so frustrated with the characters in the movie Pearl Harbor that I found myself actually rooting for the Japanese.  In this movie it is easy to imagine Turtledove’s AK-47′s entering the story and eliminating the characters on both sides.   

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Whose War for Independence?

Well, the school year is winding down for me.  My two AP History sections are set to take their big test on Friday and I am confident that they will do just fine.  I am always on the lookout for additional readings to supplement their textbook and other primary documents.  The latest issue of the New Yorker includes an excellent review by historian Jill Lepore of two new studies which explore the lives of slaves who escaped to the British army during the Revolution.

This is an important perspective to introduce in the classroom.  Most of my students are "hard-wired" to think narrowly when it comes to thinking about freedom and what it means to Americans during the conflict with Great Britain.  It is a war between white people and about abstract concepts of taxation, slavery, and representation.  Most of my students know nothing about the experiences of black Americans who fought in both the Continental and British armies.  Keep in mind that most of my students last learned American history in the 7th grade.  I use the story of black fugitive slaves who fought with the British as a way to challenge this traditional "Whig" interpretation.  This is not meant in any way as part of a broad attack on the Founding Fathers; I am very careful to encourage my students to critically examine their ideas about slavery and freedom within the bounds of the Founders’ experiences and their sense of what was possible.  Gordon Wood has made this point numerous times in various books.  I want my students to learn the importance of perspective in analyzing the past.  The past looks different depending on what you read and who is included in the narrative.  While a significant number of black men fought with Washington I emphasize those slaves who risked their lives to escape to the British lines in hopes of attaining their freedom. 

This forces students to re-think the overly simplistic good guys v. bad guys paradigm.  In fact, just a few weeks after the delegates to the Second Continental Congress formerly parted with Britain, Harry Washington left Mount Vernon for Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment.  He wore a uniform with the stitched motto: "Liberty to Slaves."  It is estimated that between 80,000 – 100,000 former slaves (1 in 5) fled their homes for the freedom of the British army.  Many of course died in battle, from disease, ended up in places they did not desire to be or were returned to their owners.  One fifteen year old who was returned to her master following a failed attempt to locate Dunmore’s regiment was whipped 80 times by her master.  If that wasn’t sufficient punishment he also applied hot embers to her wounds.  Those that were "lucky" enough to find their way to the British armies ended up in England, Sierra Leone, and Nova Scotia.

Lepore speculates on why these stories of escaped slaves who left America following the war have been largely forgotten.  She suggests that 19th century abolitionists are partly to blame:

But those who did leave America also left American history.  Or, rather, they have been left out of it.  Theirs is not an undocumented story; it’s just one that has rarely been told, for a raft of interesting, if opposing reasons.  A major one is that nineteenth-century African-American abolitionists decided that they would do better by telling the story of the many blacks who fought on the patriot side during the Revolution, and had therefore earned for their race the right to freedom and full citizenship and an end to Jim Crow. 

Lepore’s suggestion that African-Americans are partly responsible for the disappearance of black men who fought with the British is disturbing on two levels.  First, is simply the idea that African-Americans must remind white Americans of their service in a war for independence that is already growing dimmer by the year.  More importantly, it looks like the project of crafting a story of black participation in the burgeoning national narrative pushed black Americans further from a much richer history of independence and the deeply entrenched desire for freedom.

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Connecting Scholarship With the Battlefield

A friend of mine is getting ready to present a paper and lead a tour as part of an upcoming Civil War conference which is set to take place in Petersburg.  The conference includes some of the leading historians and battlefield guides and involves four days of formal presentations and walking tours.  Needless to say that I would love to be able to go, but it takes place at the worse possible time for a high school teacher.  My friend is very interested in the Overland Campaign and specifically with the politics of the Army of the Potomac.  We are planning to meet for a chat about how to talk about battles and narrative.  This is a topic that I’ve been thinking a great deal about in reference to the Crater.  Here are just a few thoughts.

I should say that I am no expert on leading battlefield tours.  I’ve only led a few, including my studentsGettysburg_reunion_1  at Chancellorsville and a few groups to the Crater.  Last year I accompanied Chris Calkins and a group of people who were attending the Conference on African Americans and the Civil War, which was held at Virginia State University last May.  My friend pointed out the challenge for the military historian in trying to make the "irrational rational, the complicated simple, the random event purposeful."  Our narratives are laced with a traditional cast of character types, including the winner and loser and various others who play supporting roles.  We tend to humanize the battlefield as a series of moves on a chessboard.  Most of us know the standard stories that tend to come pre-packaged for our consumption.  Lee is the courageous gentlemen who withstands the continued onslaught from a more grizzled and less sophisticated Grant.  Just think of the tone of voice used for these two men in Ken Burns’s documentary.  Burnside is typically thought of as a bungler and so on and so on.  If the historical narrative is sophisticated enough the author may actually examine the command structure of the armies in an attempt to discern just how much control the high command exercised during the battle or campaign.  Still, it seems to me that most of our battle narratives take the form of an attempt to solve a puzzle of winner v. loser or an investigation of where and how the battle went right or wrong.  Pickett’s Charge is perhaps the best example of this tendency in our thinking. 

I have to say that I find it almost impossible to think along these lines in the context of the Crater.  Now it may simply be that the Crater is an unusual example, but it is perhaps instructive.  I find it particularly difficult in trying to balance the relative weight of command decisions v. the topography of the battlefield as a determinant of some outcome.  I look forward to reading Earl Hess’s second volume on earthworks as it will likely shed new light on the role and importance of earthworks throughout the Petersburg campaign.  One of the lessons gleaned from the first volume is the extent to which earthworks have been discounted in our battle histories from the first half of the war in the East.  Such questions force the historian and reader to think much more critically about the balance between the perceived salience of human decisions as opposed to the impersonal factors that may have determined a given outcome. 

These are important questions in connection to how our battlefields are interpreted.  It’s an issue because our tendency is to emphasize the human element when taking people around a battlefield.  I suspect that this is because the guide takes on more of a role of entertainer in addition to his/her role as interpreter.  Visitors want a good story and a sense of the meaning of what took place.  We naturally think of battlefields as places where momentous decisions made the difference between winning or losing in the context of the battle if not the war.  The need to distinguish between a spectrum of characters as outlined above becomes even more tempting.  Does the emphasis on the command decision to pull back the black units assigned to lead the assault at the crater help us understand the outcome of the battle or does it serve merely to bring into sharper relief the horror of the close hand-to-hand fighting and the courage that we love to celebrate within the ranks of both armies. To what extent did the dimensions of the crater and the confusion of battle override various last-minute decision?

Another aspect of battlefield interpretation that strikes me as important is the question of postwar memory as it relates to a given site.  When one walks the battlefields of Gettysburg and Petersburg you are not simply walking the site of a bloody engagement, but a site that was continually interpreted and shaped by various additions to the landscape – most importantly, of course, by monuments and other structures.  To what extent should the history of a battlefield today include events from the postwar error?  The landscape itself does not discriminate so why should we as visitors and interpreters?  At Gettysburg and the Crater you can’t escape the presence of the men and women who fought to preserve a certain interpretation of these famous fields that would serve their own purposes: reunion and white supremacy.  The popularity of veteran’s reunions drives this point home.  I find it very difficult at times when walking the site of the Crater to distinguish between the facts of the battle and how it was interpreted during postwar reunions and reenactments.  And it is the landscape itself that makes this so difficult.  I believe we have a responsibility to interpret these sites to include discussions of what happened since these episodes are so closely interwoven in shaping our memory of what happened.  Of course some locations lend themselves to such a discussion more than others. 

That’s it for now .

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A Disturbing Student Complaint

Historian James C. Cobb of the University of Georgia shares a disturbing student complaint over at Cliopatra:

After 34 years of college teaching, I thought I had heard just about every imaginable student complaint. Last week, however, a freshman in my 300-seat US History Since 1865 course came in to discuss her exam with one of the graders and proceeded to work herself into a semi-hissy over the fact that we had spent four class periods(one of them consisting of a visit from Taylor Branch) discussing the civil rights movement.

"I don’t know where he’s getting all of this," she complained,"we never discussed any of this in high school." One might have let the matter rest here as simply an example of a high school history teacher’s sins of omission being visited on the hapless old history prof. had the student not informed the TA in an indignant postcript, " I’m not a Democrat! I don’t think I should have to listen to this stuff!"

Given the current student and,in some places, administrative, pressures to put absolutely everything– notes, study guides, all potential exam questions and answers, etc.– on the Web, I can envision the day when the Web pages for our classes might read: " In order to insure that the professor’s lectures will not offend your political sensibilities or challenge any of your other beliefs and perceptions in any way, please indicate by clicking the appropriate box below whether you prefer the Republican or Democratic version of this course."

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Civil War News

Kevin Wilmott’s C.S.A.

This is a concise and informative overview about Kevin Wilmott’s documentary, C.S.A.:

Despite the comedy, Willmott’s anger — or more accurately, perhaps, disappointment — is palpable throughout the production. He is clearly not pleased with the current state of American society as regards the legacy of slavery. C.S.A. seems to suggest that, as a nation, we don’t fully appreciate how the images and undercurrents of the slave-holding mentality have been maintained in the nearly one and a half centuries since emancipation.

I still have not seen this movie, but will do so as soon as it hit theatres here in C-Ville. Read the entire article.

Mecklenburg County Debates Confederate History Week

This should be an interesting vote given that last year was split 6-3 in favor and which included a heated debate.  Is the possibility of it not being recognized just another example of political correctness or are we seeing something more significant such as evolving voting patterns and increased sensitivity in local government?  Stay tuned.  Read the article.

Kids hear cannon go "boom" in Georgia

Students in Georgia were treated to a living history event on a plantation in Locust Grove.

The students spent the day on the otherwise peaceful property of Kris and Bill Cawley, the current owners of the Weems Plantation House built in 1848. The plantation house sits just across the street from the school, which is also located on land that used to be a part of the Weems plantation.

“I think it’s so important to share this history with the students,” Kris Cawley said. The Cawleys donated their property to the Atlanta Chapter 18 United Daughters of the Confederacy for the day so that the students, who recently learned about the 1860-1865 War Between The States, could interact with elements of that era.

Robert E. Lee Gray, for instance, impressed students with his authentic 1863 Savage Rifle. The 79-year-old fired several blank artillery rounds into the air.

No indication that anything about life on the plantation was discussed with these kids.  Read the article.

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