Gary Gallagher’s Lee

Today my class tackled an article by Gary Gallagher on the evolution of Robert E. Lee’s reputation both during and after the war.  There are a number of article-length pieces that can be used, but I stick with "When Lee Was Mortal" which was published in the Military History Quarterly (1998).  I always start with a very general question of whether the students enjoyed reading the article.  Except for one person who suggested that Gallagher repeated himself once too often, the class concluded that it was a nice blend of narrative and analysis.  We then discussed the author’s thesis; I force my students to be as clear and inclusive as possible when sketching out the scope and purpose of the article.  There was one really nice moment: As I was sketching out the thesis on the white board one of my students objected to the way I framed the argument.  She said something along the lines of, "Mr. Levin I think you missed the point."  I stepped back and asked her to clarify which she did with the help of a few classmates.  After a few minutes it was clear that I had indeed missed a crucial point.  It’s always nice when your students feel comfortable questioning your authority.

For those of you who are not familiar with Gallagher’s interpretation of Lee it is best understood as one rooted in a broad historical context.  Lee studies tend to fall in one or two categories.  The first includes those ridiculous Lost Cause/Christian Warrior sketches that give the back of their hand to any serious historical analysis.   The second concentrates on Lee the general and judges his decisions by looking specifically at the battles and campaigns.  The paradigm example of this is Alan Nolan’s critique.  Gallagher is interested in both the evolution of Lee’s reputation and the salient factors that shaped it.  It is not enough to look at the battles, according to Gallagher.  What is needed is a wider perspective that includes the expectations of white Southerners and the way in which Lee’s offensive campaigns both rallied Southern support and worked to build his reputation as a rallying point for Southern independence by the summer of 1863.  I was pleased with the overall discussion and the relative ease with which they were able to piece together why his analytical points about the integration of the battlefield and homefront in any historical analysis is so important. 

What I like about using Gallagher’s work is that his style and clarity have a tendency to "make you smart."  Click here if you would like a more detailed summary of the article that was written by one of my students last year and posted. 

Interpretation Please

Can someone please tell me what Dimitri is up to in his two most recent posts on Historians and Numerology?  He makes a number of generalizations that are incredibly vague:

Whatever they teach the aspiring Civil War historian in the academy, they teach an indifference to numbers that is remarkable.

Rather than buckle down and do some serious accounting, the historian retreats into the world of numerology – mystical numbers, numbers of destiny, numbers of power, sanctified by the priests of a buddy system that produces Pulitzer Prizes. Many have the guts to say figuring doesn’t matter, or we can never know exactly, or even that it is difficult to reconcile the material. So why try? They then go on to elevate champions and demote goats based on suspect figures.

First, is there any merit to his initial claim that students in the academy our woefully ill-prepared to deal with "numbers" in their research?  Second, is there anything beyond the standard list of suspects that we’ve heard about before that apply to this second passage?  If not, wake me up when this is over.  How about a couple of real examples to flesh out what you mean in all of this?  How about just one example from the literature to work with?

My Home Office or How I Spent My Afternoon

A few weeks back I shared a few pictures of my classroom and office.  This week I want to share a few pictures of my home office.  My wife bought me a digital camera last spring and I’ve been using it quite a bit — can’t wait to use it for research purposes.  Anyway, here are a few pics of my own workspace at home.  My wife and I moved into our first home back in December 2002.  My office is roughly 13 x 13 and includes just enough room for a good-sized desk and plenty of shelf space.  This is the first time that I’ve had my own space and enough room for all my Civil War books, journals, and Troiani prints.  Yes, I have a number of Troiani prints which will eventually be sold given their increase in value over the past few years.  In the pic to the right you can see Troiani’s depiction of the 6th Virginia at the Crater as well as U.S.C.T.’s  If I have any say surrounding the cover for my Crater study it will be some kind of contrast between this print and John Elder’s painting of the same scene done in 1869.  The contrast between how black soldiers are depicted is quite telling.  I would say that I have a fairly extensive library.  Most of my books are recent studies.  I do not accumulate books simply for the sake of owning them; they have to be of some use to my teaching or research projects.  Those of you who have had to deal with moving an entire library can appreciate the hassle of having to pack box after box.  There are a few classics in my collection.  You should be able to make out a Pulitzer-Prize edition of D. S. Freeman’s Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Veteran volumes at the top which I use on a regular basis given that my interests center on memory.  I have a few rows of battle/campaign studies, but the majority of my books concentrate on Southern history, biography, Confederate history, and postwar/memory studies.  There is also an entire shelf devoted to Lincoln; I will read practically anything on Lincoln.  It’s also nice to have room for journals, which I thoroughly enjoy reading.  I subscribe to Civil War History, Journal of Southern History, and the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.  A professor at the University of Richmond gave me his entire run of the JSH going back to 1960 upon his retirement two years ago, and John Coski recently unloaded his JAH going back to 1980.

You will also notice that my laptop is located on top of one of my shelves.  I started to work standing about three years ago owing to back problems.  It also keeps me awake.  A prominent historian here in town who also works standing suggested that I have a desk custom made with plenty of room to spread material on.  Perhaps at some point, but right now I use my desk and the rest of the shelf space, which seems to work well.

On a different, but related note today I engaged in my weekly ritual of mowing the lawn.  Most of what we do as teachers and researchers is open-ended.  The life of the mind includes few destinations.  What I like about mowing the lawn is that it can be brought to completion.  Basically, its therapeutic.  Of course, as you can see it’s a big-ass lawn which takes about an hour to mow.  Since this is my first address where I have to worry about house-related maintenance I did not think about who would handle this responsibility.  I don’t complain, however, because it’s the one thing that I can do around the house.  I say this as someone who is completely incompetent when it comes to fixing things.  My wife handles those problems.  For example, the other day one of the outlets failed.  My immediate response was to call the electrician.  My wife, on the other hand, went over to the hardware store bought the necessary parts and fixed it.   I still have the satisfaction that I mowed the lawn and it looks damn good!

History Carnival XL

The latest History Carnival is up at Rob McDougall’s Old is the New New.  Two recent posts made the cut, including Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free and Chandra Manning on Civil War Soldiers and Slavery.  Rob singled out the latter post with a criticism that I would like to address:

A comment on Kevin’s latter post accuses Manning of reductionism, in her insistence that ideas about slavery were fundamental to the worldview of soldiers on both sides. To which I reply: Chandra is a good and brilliant friend of mine, the one in grad school who put all the rest of us to shame. I’ve seen the size of her dissertation, to be published by Knopf next year, and I assure you it is not reductive about anything.

Perhaps I couched my critique in the wrong terms, but my comment was not meant as a slight against Manning’s research.  Her argument suggests (if I’ve read it correctly) that a range of motivating factors offered by white Southerners for joining and staying in the ranks can be understood as connecting or “reducing” to slavery.  I find it to be a very interesting analysis of the primary sources.  It obviously did not mean to suggest that she had simplified what is a complex and highly debated question.

Biking Virginia: Richmond

Yesterday my wife and I traveled to the Fort Harrison branch of the Richmond National Battlefield Park for a 33-mile tour – our longest tour yet.  The weather was very pleasant with temperatures in the low 70′s and a light breeze.  While at Fort Harrison I ran into Mike Andrus who is an employee with the Park Service.  Mike and I were on a panel together last year at Virginia State University on African Americans in the Civil War. He has been working on a detailed history of U.S.C.T.’s at the battle of New Market.  We rode out onto Kingsland Rd. and made our way towards Malvern Hill which served as our first break at mile 12.  We stopped for a bit and I interpreted the site for my wife who actually knows quite a bit about the Civil War.  This was my first trip to Malvern Hill since 2002 when I walked the battlefield as part of my research on Col. John Bowie Magruder and the 57th Virginia who took part in the battle.  Magruder provides a detailed account of the battle and I was able to point out the spot to my wife where Magruder and the rest of his unit took cover during their advance.

From Malvern Hill we headed up the Willis Church Rd. and stopped for a few minutes at the Glendale Visitor Center and Cemetery.  I’ve actually never stopped at this location so I decided to take a couple photographs.  It is a very pleasant and peaceful spot; I was not aware that soldiers from other wars were also buried alongside those from the Civil War.  The nicest part of this ride is the consistently flat terrain.  Once on the Darbytown Rd it was smooth sailing for the next 12 miles.  The roads are relatively quiet, but you do need to ride defensively.  The final stretch runs along Osborn Turnpike and takes you right back to Fort Harrison.  Much of the ride provides clear views of earthworks and the last few miles takes you by Forts Harrison, Johnson, and Hoke.

Once back at our car we loaded up the bikes and spent a few minutes walking through Fort Harrison.  There were a number of reenactors camped inside the fort.  I took a few pictures as they seemed to be looking for the attention.  I struck up a conversation with one reenactor who was dressed in a Union uniform.  I commented that it was nice to see a “Yankee” down here in these parts and he smiled and said that he was actually with the 15th Virginia.  Of course, I should have known that there is always a shortage of Union reenactors, which he quickly confirmed.  He was nice enough to take a photo with me.

All in all it was a great day.  The legs were a bit sore, but I can definitely feel my stamina and energy increasing.  The successful completion of a 40-50 mile tour doesn’t seem to be that far in the near future.  I don’t know how I would organize it, but a quick look at the map suggests that a bike ride from Fort Harrison all the way up to Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor is feasible.  The route would take me right through White Oak Swamp and over the Chickahominy River at the Grapevine Bridge.  If only the nice weather sticks around for a few more weeks, anything is possible.