Let The Entertainment Begin

Some wealthy dude with money to spend decided to make a movie about Gettysburg. From the article in the Washington Times. Hat tip to Dimitri

“Fields of Freedom,” shot on a 500-acre farm in Hagerstown, Md., with young, little-known actors in authentic Civil War uniforms, debuts tonight at a reception at the National Archives Building. The film opens April 19, when it will be shown on a 3?-story screen to tourists visiting Mr. Monahan’s new Gateway Gettysburg complex adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park. The development eventually will include four hotels, a conference center, movie theaters, shops and restaurants.

“We couldn’t do a lot of blood and guts,” the 52-year-old Gettysburg native said recently while screening the film in his Northwest Washington home, which he shares with wife Laurie, three daughters and two dogs. “With school groups, we didn’t want too much violence.”

Still, the film depicts the defining battle of the Civil War in digital technology and Dolby 6 sound, and the result is an incredible trip back in time. The score was done by Trevor Jones and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and the film ends with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address narrated by former President George Bush. “He was thrilled to do it,” said Mr. Monahan. The script was based on diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers.

“I’m very patriotic. I love history. … There were 175,000 troops involved in a three-day battle. There were 51,000 casualties. This helps bring the Battle of Gettysburg to life,” the executive producer said. “We have to experience what they fought for.”

By the way, what did they fight for? Perhaps it will be revealed with the Dolby 6 sound.


Civil War Fathers

I had another excellent Civil War class today in which we discussed James Marten’s work on children. We read his North and South article “Let Me Edge in to Your Bright Fire,” (September 1998) which explores the steps that fathers took to maintain contact with their children back home. Marten is the author of two recent studies of the family and children during the Civil War, including The Children’s Civil War and Children for the Union: The War Spirit on the Northern Home Front. Here is a quick synopsis of Marten’s thesis:

Confederate and Union fathers mourned the loss of daily contact with their sons and daughters the way they would mourn the loss of a limb in combat. But as their correspondence with their families so touchingly reveals, they refused to give up their paternal roles. Their letters home reveal a side of Civil War soldiers unexplored in most accounts of their lives: their love for their children, their determination to remain important figures in their children’s lives, their startlingly “modern” approach to childrearing. These were not the distant Victorian fathers that we so often read about, but men deepy engaged in the raising of their sons and daughters. Civil War soldiers fought to remain fathers in deed as well as in name, and filled their letters with affection and advice. This was a vital part of their self-images, and one cannot fully understand the men who wore the blue and the gray unless one realizes how important their families were to them.

I have to admit that I was surprised by some of the opening comments. My approach is to give the students a chance to voice their general reactions before getting into the analysis of the author’s thesis. A few students wondered, “What does it add?” Another student quipped, “So they missed their children, big deal.” Following this “airing of the grievances” I asked them to step back and think more critically about Marten’s thesis. What does he think is missing from our traditional interpretations of Civil War soldiers? How do we tend in all wars to think about the behavior and psychology of the American soldier? After some thought a few of the students suggested that these stories “make the men more human” and “personalize the war.”

What was interesting from my perspective was the direction the discussion took. As we discussed Marten’s evidence the students wondered why these men didn’t just leave the armies for the home front. One of the students chimed in by referring to his Valley of the Shadow research and the Animated Maps that can be viewed to follow a certain regiment around the map. He noted that the men in the 5th Virginia from Staunton had every opportunity to leave since their travels rarely took them great distances from home. I knew exactly where this discussion was going and it was a pleasure to watch it develop. We’ve read articles by Chandra Manning and James McPherson who suggest that soldiers were motivated to join and endure the horrors of war because of a strong commitment to ideological principles. The challenge for my students turned out to be that given these fathers’ deep emotional connection with their families and children that many of these men who had the opportunity to leave the ranks by deserting did not do so. (Recent studies suggest that desertion rates among Virginia units did not rise steadily throughout the war and that only during the final 6 months did the numbers rise sharply.) Their difficulty was comprehending that a commitment to an ideology could have trumped the more immediate emotional concerns on the ground. I eventually asked my students to think about an idea that they would be willing to die for. Not one spoke up. As a teacher these are priceless moments when students see clearly the great divide between themselves and people who lived not too long ago.


How Not To Argue About The Civil War

I was intrigued by Brett Schulte’s recent post over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading which summarizes the most recent issue of the popular Civil War magazines. I like this feature of Brett’s blog as I rarely keep up with the large number of history magazines currently on the market. I appreciate Brett’s kind words re: my Crater article, which along with Peter Carmichael’s piece summarized below, were published in the most recent issue of America’s Civil War (May 2006). Here is Brett’s assessment of Carmichael’s article.

Peter Carmichael’s article on Chancellorsville is definitely of the “new military history” variety, looking at how two Confederate soldiers in the Stonewall Brigade, Henry Kyd Douglas and Owen T. Hedges, handled their experiences on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. He relates Douglas’ fabrication of how Brigade commander Franklin E. “Bull” Paxton met his end, and then goes into the reasons why Douglas might have done so. Carmichael goes on to commend Hedges for his “honest self-assessmentI”. One of the main themes of the author’s article is that military history is “dry” without liberally sprinkling in social history. I agree that looking at how soldiers’ felt is an important and perfectly valid topic of study, and that some might find this topic interesting. As a military history buff, I don’t believe it is needed as much as some would claim in traditional campaign and battle studies. There is plenty of room for both types of book in the study of the Civil War. As a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, I liken this to Jackie Robinson and his role as the first African-American to play in the modern (post-1900) game. A history of a given season of the Brooklyn Dodgers, say 1951, would not focus on the fact that Robinson was Black. Instead, it would focus on his contributions on the playing field (i.e. the “tactics” of a baseball game). Other books concentrate on Robinson’s role in paving the way for non-White players, as they rightly should. To me it is simply a matter of what is interesting to the individual reader.

In response to a recent post on my frustration with Civil War Roundtables, Brooks Simpson shared a comment from a review of an introduction that he did for a new edition of Joshua Chamberlain’s famous memoir, The Passing of the Armies. Apparently this reader was unhappy with Simpson’s deconstruction or interpretation of the memoir as something more than an accurate account of the war years.

The Passing of the Armies offers readers the opportunity to experience the trials and triumphs of the Civil War through the personal recollections of an authentic American hero. However, it is my opinion that the introduction by Brooks D. Simpson serves to disrupt the first hand experiences of Joshua Chamberlain by calling into question Chamberlain’s accuracy of events and his personal motives. Passing of the Armies should stand as one man’s first hand account of his life, leaving his critics to write their own book.

Brett’s review of Carmichael and this anonymous review of Simpson’s introduction highlight the gap between these two approaches to the study of the Civil War and serves to re-open one of the common themes of this blog: the apparent tension between social and traditional military history. In reference to Brett’s critique I don’t think that Carmichael’s point is simply that military history is “dry” without a broader focus, but that the failure to address broader themes renders the interpretation incomplete. Carmichael and other practitioners are not simply “sprinkling in social history” because it is fashionable, but because they believe that a broader analytical approach reveals a more sophisticated understanding of the past. I want to be clear that I have absolutely no problem with one’s personal preferences. If you happen to be interested in straight-forward military history with its concentration on the battlefield so be it. What one claims to be interested in is not a proper topic of debate since it can be characterized as a descriptive claim of one’s preferences. However, the claim that the “New Military History” is simply a matter of preference cannot be dismissed so easily. There is room for debate as to the merits of the approach. It cannot simply be pushed aside as a “flavor of ice cream” or reduced to “personal preference.” Simpson’s point in his introduction to Chamberlain’s memoir reveals why a broader critical approach to sources is so important. You simply can’t treat a memoir as a “first-hand account” of the war. He penned it years after the war ended and clearly had an agenda. Carmichael’s point also rams home the point that a more thoughtful critique of sources utilizing the approaches as outlined in cultural and social histories is absolutely essential to understanding the accounts of Douglas and Owens. Whether you agree or disagree with their conclusions can lead to an interesting debate, but there arguments cannot be dispensed with by giving it the back of your hand because it doesn’t mesh with your personal preferences or tastes.

We need to move beyond the naïve dichotomy of social/cultural history v. military history. I hope my little piece on the Crater says more than just my personal preference for social history v. military history. You can do both w/o losing the attraction of the battlefield. Implicit in my ACW article is the argument that you can’t understand Confederate accounts of the battle without a broader approach. Their wartime accounts are part of an interpretation that stretches beyond the battlefield. Their accounts connect to the home front, politics, and race. Their own accounts point in this direction as opposed to the claim that historians are imposing their own agenda on the past. Of course the pitfalls of presentism abound, but they can be avoided through a careful reading of the sources. If you disagree with that premise then provide an argument against it. Please don’t tell me that you find my flavor displeasing. You can disagree, but disagreements imply debate/dialogue. I welcome it.


Farewell to Civil War Roundtables

I was updating my cv the other day and noticed a sharp discrepancy between the number of professional and non-professional talks that I’ve given and plan to give this year. Between 2004 and 2005 I travelled to 9 Civil War Roundtables. I have as yet to talk at a roundtable this year and I am not scheduled to do so until 2007 when I will talk at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable. The number of professional or academic talks over the same period, however, has risen sharply. I’ve been asked to give talks this year, but have resisted for one reason or another. Gas prices are high and many roundtables fail to cover travel expenses. I simply can’t afford it. That said, the real reason I haven’t done more of these talks is that I no longer enjoy giving them.

Roundtable audiences tend to be interested in the same tired stories and I tend not to play along. My talks work if I stick to straightforward battle discussions such as the talk I do on the Crater. I find that when I combine battle talk with memory and race audiences tend to lose focus or in many cases show apparent displeasure that I would introduce such controversial and sordid detail. On one occasion following a talk I gave on William Mahone’s postwar political career an elderly woman approached me an scolded me for “ruining” her view of a perfectly fine Confederate officer. I am tired of having to go through the nonsense surrounding debates over race and secession. Whenever I present a Crater talk I inevitably get the comment or question referring to the “thousands” of black Southerners who fought for the Confederacy. I end up spending more time on that then the subject of my talk. And if it’s a long drive home I spend the time second guessing my original decision to go because in the back of my mind I knew all along that there was a good chance that such a situation would develop. I have to admit that as a teacher I am frustrated with myself for feeling this way. Blogging is one way of filling the hole that has has resulted from fewer speaking engagements. I can post what I want and by now it seems I have a fairly regular group that enjoys and profits from my ideas and research. And new people are introduced to the site on a regular basis.

I am much more comfortable speaking in academic settings these days. At first I was a complete basket case, though much of it was a defensiveness on my part – a feeling that I didn’t belong. I am now way beyond that point. The discussions following the talks are much more engaging and focused on the topic at hand. Of course, there is always the questioner who is more interested in hearing himself talk, but that is a price I am willing to pay. I have found that academic Civil War historians are on the whole a pretty cool group of people. It may happen that at some point I will return to more casual settings, but for now no one is knocking down the door and I am perfectly fine with that.


Gallman’s Dickinson

Last night I finished reading J. Matthew Gallman’s new biography America’s’ Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson. I’ve been following Gallman’s Dickinson project over the past few years through essays in various edited collections so it is nice to see it all come together in this book. Gallman is a first-rate historian; he manages to pack a great deal of information and analysis in just over 200 pages. Dickinson is a remarkable subject for study. Born in 1842, Dickinson became one of the nation’s most popular and influential orators by the Civil War. As a teenager she maneuvered in social circles which included some of the most prominent abolitionists and women’s rights activists of the time. Rather than take the common approach of appealing to her audience’s emotions during her anti-slavery speeches, Dickinson provided sharp political readings of the Constitution as justification for her specific stands on the issues of the day. Throughout the Civil War Dickinson spoke tirelessly for the preservation of the Union and against the “copperhead” threat. Dickinson also spoke out against Lincoln during a famous speech to Congress in 1864. Following the war Dickinson continued on the Lyceum circuit, but owing to tough financial times took to the stage in the 1880’s. In 1891 her sister Susan had her committed to a state insane asylum. She died in 1932.

Gallman’s analysis is both careful and revealing. He does an excellent job connecting both Dickinson’s behavior and her political views to broader issues of gender. A case in point is Gallman’s diligence in trying to understand the numerous personal letters between Dickinson and both men and many women with whom she apparently had intimate relations.

For the contemporary reader this is complex terrain. Nineteenth-century Americans routinely adopted flowery, sometimes effusive, language that sounds peculiar to the modern ear and can confuse our understanding of relationships. But there is ample evidence that some women within this separate female world expressed their mutual affection with varying degrees of physical intimacy. Prior to the end of the century, these women lived in a society without rigidly defined notions of sexual preference. That is, various degrees of homosocial intimacy, even explicit genital contact, did not necessarily suggest any particular label to either participant. Rather, the very absence of rigid definitions–or any culturally delineated sense of homosexuality as a distinct category–left nineteenth-century women with unusual freedom to experiment and experience without being forced into a complex act of self-definition, and without, at least in the immediate post-Civil War decades, necessarily confronting social stigmas. Many of these women went on to marry men, while often maintaining their loving relationships with their female friends. Others never married, or eventually abandoned unsatisfying marriages, and many of these women ended up living in households with their female partners. (pp. 114-15)

Given the recent flurry of books on Lincoln’s sexuality such careful analysis is a breadth of fresh air. Gallman’s interpretive talents also help to clarify the complex post-war debates within the suffrage world between those women who remained loyal to the Republican Party (such as Dickinson) and the cause of black rights and those like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton who abandoned the party to concentrate on women’s suffrage. Dickinson comes across as someone who would not allow herself to be easily labelled or manipulated. Gallman also does an excellent job balancing his analysis with Dickinson’s own words; after all, this is a story of a woman who had an incredible talent as a public speaker. Her sarcasm and sharp wit emerge time and again in this book. One example stands out:

During her southern travels the sharp-tongued Dickinson occasionally clashed with prying or hostile strangers. When she crossed swords with unreconstructed rebels, Dickinson gave as good as she got. In Georgia she happened to mention that she had seen “Valentine’s statue of Lee” in Richmond. A Southern lady, the wife of a Confederate general, objected to Dickinson’s informal tone, reminding her that “‘You mean Gen[eral] Lee'” Rather than deflecting a potentially awkward moment with a quick pleasantry, Dickinson rose to the bait. “‘No, madame,”” she retorted, “‘I mean Lee–Robert E. Lee–Lieut. Col. Lee. I know of no legitimate legal authority to make him more than that.'” (p. 138)

Given that I will be teaching an elective next year on late 19th and 20th century women’s history I may use part of this book or one of Gallman’s essays to get the course rolling. Dickinson led both a rich and tragic life. Gallman’s book is well worth your time, and if you don’t know much about 19th century women’s history this is a great place to start.


The Historical Jesus and the Lost Cause

I’ve been reading with interest about the recent "discovery" of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which some scholars believe sheds new light on the story of Jesus and his death. I should say upfront that I am not a Christian; that said, I am very interested in the debates surrounding the interpretation and understanding of the historical Jesus. In other words, I am interested in better understanding the life of an incredibly important man. Of course, there is a deep-rooted tension here between what we can know historically about this individual and what many claim to "understand" through faith. If we are interested in the historical Jesus than the rules of historical inquiry seem to apply, but this is controversial as anyone who examines the historical data knows that it is problematic. Much of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the gospels contained in the New Testament; however, the earliest gospels are estimated to have been written anywhere between 70 and 120 years after the death of Jesus. This gap raises a number of difficult problems for the historian, including the question of authorship and motivation. A number of scholars have raised the possibilities that later gospels were either copied directly or paraphrased from the earlier texts. What this means, of course, is that the New Testament gospels do not necessarily provide independent confirmation of the subject in question. This gap also suggests that the earliest gospel was not written by someone who knew Jesus personally. Finally, even if we could confirm that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were his own, we would still have the challenge of interpreting what he meant by what he said. And as any historian knows this can be extremely difficult if the questions of when, where, and why the words were spoken are unknown.

Getting back to the gap between the life of Jesus and the estimates of when the first accounts were written, imagine that the earliest documents we have of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were dated to the late 19th century and penned by people born after the event. How much of the motivation of the Founders could we uncover? Given the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution today even with a rich history of what they said and why, how far could we go in my imaginative scenario? I have to admit that I don’t know much about this new Judas document, but I welcome any new piece of information that may help peel back the layers of this intriguing individual and the life of Jesus. From what I’ve read the document is dated to the 4th century, which places it at a point later than the gospels. The dating of the document, however, does not seems to render it otiose. It’s been interesting reading reactions from individuals who relish the additional information as opposed to those who almost instinctively resist any challenge to their preferred interpretation. I suspect that part of the reason involves the faith that people exercise in reference to the life and resurrection of Jesus. But this raises the interesting question of the role – if at all – historical sources should play in one’s overall view. Should a believer be concerned about the history and/or historical inquiry that many scholars are presently engaged in surrounding the life of Jesus? If one’s belief in a certain interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is based entirely on faith are there any constraints on such a view; in other words, can I believe anything about Jesus on faith. If there are interpretve constrainsts, what exactly are they and who gets to exercise the authority? And if some historical content that is based on a close reading of a wide range of texts is necessary, how much and who gets to decide and why?

The tension between faith and a need to understand the past resonates in Civil War circles. There are those who have little patience with traditional views of the Confederacy and the Civil War which are rooted in the Lost Cause. Debate is difficult as both camps have divergent agendas. Lost Cause advocates seem more concerned with protecting a specific set of assumptions while historians with a more professional bent tend to find it easier to question deeply-rooted interpretations. I am fascinated by people who stick to their guns when it comes to defending a traditional interpretation of Lee, Jackson or even the "benevolent institution of slavery." Notice that challenges are dealt with by utilizing the language of betrayal or sacrilege. Those who question "the faith" are called "northern liberals," "communists," "revisionists," and yes, "academics." For these people no amount of discussion, debate or even the introduction of new sources matters. (I should say that I’ve met some pretty stubborn/close-minded academics in my day. These are not mutually exclusive categories.) Their view is a matter of personal faith and not a function of serious historical inquiry. I am not necessarily judging such an approach, but it is clearly not an approach that I find productive in my own quest to better understand 19th century America. Of course there is a broad area in the middle where both camps merge in creative and at times confusing ways. It can be said that both sides are looking for some kind of meaning in the past, but the routes taken have little in common.