Civil War Books: The State of the Field

The most recent newsletter for the Society of Civil War Historians includes an overview of their dinner and special session at the upcoming meeting of Southern Historical Association in Birmingham, Alabama.  Once again I will be unable to attend as their meetings take place during the worst month for a high school teacher.  I am, however, looking forward to the following year, which will take place in Richmond.  Please contact me if you are interested in putting together a session on Civil War memory and/or public history and the National Park Service for the 2007 meeting in Richmond.  The session will look at the state of Civil War publishing and the presenters include Dan Ross, Director and Editor-in-Chief of the University of Alabama Press; David Perry, Editor-in-Chief of the University of North Carolina Press; and Sylvia Frank Rodrigue, who runs Sylverlining, an editorial consulting business. 

Here is an excerpt from Dan Ross’s abstract:

[M]y discussion will be an attempt to produce indications of the level of serious Civil War book publishing in three five-year periods, 1960-64, 1980-84, and 2000-04, and the level of professional review of such works during the same periods.  The first period was chosen as matching the Civil War centennial, when presumably the publishing industry foresaw a market for books on the conflict and encouraged and perhaps even provided support for the preparation of books during that period.  With the centennial of the war established as the benchmark, the recent past of 2000-04 would test the evidence for a sense that we are now in the most active period ever seen by the Civil War book industry.  Finally the period 1980-84 was chosen as midway between the two others and to provide an equivalent span for comparison with them.

The examination of the frequency and proportion of book reviews in the two leading professional journals that would view attention to Civil War history as a significant requirement–but not as their sole obligation–permits examination of another oft-repeated bromide, although one not usually heard from Civil War specialists.  This usually appears at the rhetorical question –"How can there be anything new to say about the Civil War?"–which can be a legitimate question, or perhaps sour grapes from those who have selected such topics as the Glass-Steagall Act as their specialty.  Therefore to undertake a test to attempt to determine both newness and freshness of topic and treatment, an examination is made of the rate of reviews of Civil War books in the same periods in those professional journals that would feel obliged to review a work that had pretensions to say something new about that event.

This promises to be an interesting session – definitely something Dimitri might be interested in. 

 

A Michigan High School’s Black Confederate Mural

As if our national love affair with Confederate imagery couldn’t get any more bizarre, a high school in Michigan is having trouble dealing with its historically inaccurate namesake.  What exactly do I mean?  Lee High School has adopted various aspects of Confederate symbolism over the years, including a dedication to R.E. Lee in the 1936 yearbook, and in the 1960′s the battle flag appeared as part of the marching band’s uniform, and another much larger battle flag graced the school’s hallway wall.  According to the principal the school’s name has nothing to do with the Confederate general:

According to Britten’s research, the school took its name from the street on
which it stands. It was renamed Lee Street from State Street in 1914, possibly
because the first family to live there was named Leyla. The district was named
for the high school and the Godfrey School that preceded it.

Wait, the story gets better.

The board and the high school sports boosters commissioned former student Arturo
Araujo to paint the Lee High School Rebel mascot on a gym wall.  The board
of education threatened to withhold payment because the artist painted the
Confederate Rebel with a dark skinned face, unlike the sketch he provided when
he was hired.

Here is the artist’s justification of his work:

I was shooting to represent the whole student body," says artist Arturo Araujo.
"75 percent colored, 25 percent caucasion. That was the whole idea of painting
the mural. So the whole school is represented by it’s mascot.

Don’t you just love the idea of a multi-cultural Confederate rebel?  I hope they don’t remove this mural, though I am just a bit concerned that those who are pushing the black Confederate story will use this as just another piece of evidence.  I can hear it now: "You see, even some Yankees in Michigan have acknowledged the existence of the black Confederate.  What more evidence do you need?"

 

William Lowndes Yancey: Unionist?

Compared with years past I’ve seriously cut down on writing book reviews.  I base my decision, in large part, on the word count that the publication is willing to allow.  Unless I can say something beyond simply summarizing the content of the book it doesn’t seem worth doing.  In addition to the edited collection of essays honoring Emory Thomas, which I just finished, I am also reviewing Eric H. Walther’s new biography, William Lowndes Yancey: The Coming of the Civil War for the journal Louisiana History.  I just started, but I’ve learned a great deal; he is much more complicated than I thought.  Yancey lost his father early on and was raised by his mother and step-father Nathan Beeman who was a minister and abolitionist.  Turns out that his father was incredibly abusive to his mother – going so far as to nail her inside a closet.  Yancey lived in Massachusetts and attended Williams College. 

Between living in New England and his step-father, Yancey developed into an ardent Unionist, which he continued to embrace even after settling back in Greenville, South Carolina following the infamous Tariff Debates.  One of his first public speeches focused on the controversial test oath policy which would require state officials to take an oath of allegiance to disobey federal authorities in the event of another national conflict.  Here is a section from his speech:

Listen, not then, my countrymen, to the voice which whispers, (for as yet, it dares not raise itself above a whisper) that Americans, who have been knit together by so many cords of affection, can no longer be mutual worshipers at the shrine of freedom–no longer can exist together, citizens of the same Republic. . . . And yet, it has become a common thing to hear the Union spoken of as a disagreeable league.  Designing men have, indeed, effectually destroyed, in the minds of but too many in our State, the charm which has, until of late, invested our Federal Union.  But can any one view the course taken by some of the most talented and influential men in our State and country, for the last few years, and not see the evident tendency of their proceedings to be disunion and a Southern Confederacy?

Unlike Calhoun and others who were radicalized by the Tariff Debates it would take time for Yancey to reach their conclusions.  It will be interesting to read on to see exactly how that happened.  As many of you know, by the early 1850′s Yancey had moved to the states’ rights position.  He went on and joined the group that split the Democratic Party in their 1860 national nominating convention, introduced Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, served as the Confederacy’s first diplomatic commissioner to England and France, and finally as senator from Alabama.  He died in 1863. 

I will post additional Yancey nuggets along the way. 

 

Thinking About Confederate Identity and Nationalism

I spent yesterday finishing a review of Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas which is edited by Leslie Gordon and John Inscoe for Civil War Book Review.  I will post the essay when it is published, but wanted to share some thoughts that did not find a place in the review.  The collection is exceptionally strong.  Questions of identity and nationalism connect in various ways to my current research projects so I jumped at the chance to review this book. A free copy with a value of around $50 was another incentive.  Taken as a whole the essays reflect both a step in a new direction and a reaffirmation of Thomas’s scholarship as understood in his major works, The Confederacy As A Revolutionary Experience  and The Confederate Nation

What I mean to suggest here is that over the past few years historians have become seduced by the question of nationalism.  Thomas brought the ideas of change and conflict to the study of the Confederacy.  He examined the ways in which the uncertainties of war challenged and shaped the way white Southerners identified with the Confederacy.  This stands in sharp contrast to recent studies which purport to identify whether Southerners managed to create a robust nationalist ideology or whether they managed to create a nation.  The question typically arises in the context of discussions about how to explain Confederate defeat.  The seduction involves reading back into the past from a point where Confederate defeat is a given with the goal of uncovering the salient condition(s) that explains that defeat.  Problems with this approach abound.  First, it is unclear what a sufficient nationalist ideology even looks like, not to mention that it begs the question of whether the satisfaction of that condition would or could have brought about Southern independence.  Second, it is extremely difficult to weigh competing explanations for defeat by appealing to some missing or insufficient factor.  In other words how do you compare the relative worth of different claims as to what’s missing from a successful formula?  The broader problem is that the approach steers clear of the obvious point that the Confederacy came close to victory on a number of occasions.  And if the experiment had proven successful we would not be debating various internal weaknesses.  The North suffered from some of the same problems in addition to the challenge (recently examined by Mark Neely) of a two-party system.  If the North had lost the war these historians would be arguing for the same conclusions, but in reference to Lincoln’s Administration and the North.

The "lack of will" thesis can be found in older studies such as Richard Beringer’s et. al Why the South Lost the War and in Paul Escott’s After Secession.  More recent studies include William Davis’s Look Away! and I recently reviewed David Eicher’s explanation for Confederate defeat in Dixie Betrayed, which I found to be seriously lacking.  Mark Weitz argues that the calls from loved ones on the home front lured Confederates away from the ranks in his study of desertion, More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army.  The overall problem is that this approach ignores the complexity surrounding the way that white Southerners juggled the demands of war and their connection to both state and national governments.  In the case of Mark Weitz’s study, the fact that Confederates deserted does not necessarily imply an insufficient will to fight.  It could mean any number of things.  Thomas’s own scholarship and the content of the essays collected in his festschrift attest to constantly shifting identifications, morale, and the importance of local conditions.   The essays suggest that the focus has shifted away from the question of whether the white Southern experience reflected the creation and maintenance of a nationalist ideology to the more empirical question of how Southerners identified with the cause.  The cultural examination, with its emphasis on description rather than conceptual analysis, leaves plenty of room to acknowledge the contingencies of wartime experience and the numerous challenges that white Southerners faced as they thought about their identities as members of a family, local community, state, and nation. In short, it was never all or nothing.

My review of the book will provide plenty of examples to flesh out some of these ideas.  Stay tuned.

 

Renaming Public Spaces

Looks like another local conflict is looming in Birmingham over a proposal to rename a public park.  The proposal calls for changing the name of Caldwell Park – named to honor a Confederate general and slaveowner – to recognize the contributions of former City Councilwoman Nina Miglionico, a social progressive who was appointed in 1963 and served for twenty years. 

William Stewart, University of Alabama political science professor emeritus,
said conflict persists in the South where tributes to Confederate soldiers and
segregationists abound.  "These were established at a time when the electorate was overwhelmingly
white and people didn’t have to be sensitive to African-American feelings to the
naming of facilities after the people who fought to keep them in slavery,"
Stewart said.

On the other hand, according to D’Linell Finley, professor of political science at Auburn University:

At some point even though the city may be overwhelmingly black, there is a
realization that Confederate history is a part of our past too," Finley said.
"Don’t make it a loss of one history for the other.

Just one question for Professor Finley: Why do we have to frame this debate along mutually exclusive lines?  Seems to me that there is plenty of opportunity to balance the way in which a city chooses to remember its collective past.  More importantly, given the monopoly that white Southerners have enjoyed in regard to public spaces, there is obviously a deep need to do so.