Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Civil War Memory

It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention.  It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT.  Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War.  The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.

Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar.  Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war.  From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.

There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well.  As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.

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Petersburg: Mowing History

Battery 5 at Petersburg National Battlefield

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.  This is the fourth in a series.

On many Civil War battlefields, all that is left is the land. For battlefield enthusiasts, just looking at the terrain can evoke the battle, the movement of the units, the decisions of the commanders, and the experience of the soldiers, and perhaps even the war’s greater meaning.

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Civil War Weather

"The Mud March" by Mort Kunstler

I trust that all of you along the east coast have made the best of this nasty weather and are safe. I am particularly concerned about my small contingent of “fans” in the Virginia Beach – Suffolk area, though I trust that they are also doing just fine. Here in Boston it is raining and a little windy, but so far nothing too serious at all – just a very wet Sunday morning.

With all the talk about the weather over the past few days it occurred to me that perhaps we have much to learn about its influence on campaigns as well as the physical and psychological well-being of the men in the ranks.  Yes, we have plenty of descriptions of various kinds of weather, but it seems to me that the analytical side of our understanding may fall short.  Perhaps I am just ignorant of the literature.

A few studies stand out.  Robert Krick recently published, Civil War Weather in Virginia, which offers a handy chronology of weather information in the Washington D.C. – Richmond corridor.  George Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! includes a fine chapter on how the weather influenced the failed Mud March following the battle of Fredericksburg.  More recently, Kathryn S. Meier published, “No Place for the Sick: Nature’s War on Civil War Soldier Mental and Physical Health in the 1862 Peninsula and Shenandoah Valley Campaign” in The Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2011).  What else do you recommend?  I am not just thinking about weather, but broader environmental issues as well.

Finally, I recently learned that Ken Noe’s next book will focus on weather related issues.  Perhaps he can give us a sense of what he is up to.

 

On Antietam and Hot Coffee

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.

This is the third in a series.

Walking around the Antietam battlefield, envisioning the bloodiest day in U.S. history, one is hard-pressed for a moment of levity. There is Bloody Lane, the cornfield, and Burnside Bridge, a deceptively idyllic crossing of Antietam Creek. (If you don’t know why it looks familiar, glance at the cover of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom). Site after site is linked to death and suffering, carnage beyond belief.

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Back to the Battlefield: Field Notes from a Cultural Civil War Historian

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.

This is the second in a series.

 [The Civil War] was not a fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, but it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield. Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Madison Square,” Decoration Day, 1878

Unfortunately, even with all of the changes that are currently being implemented we have a long way to go…[E]ven most white Americans who claim to be interested in the Civil War for whatever reason fail to come to terms with its importance to our broader history.  I sometimes think that our colorful stories of Lee and Lincoln are more of a threat to our sense of national identity as [than] no memory or connection with the war.  We would all do well to take a step back. Kevin Levin, “History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, August 2009

Last week, through Kevin’s generosity, I jumped into a post about the missing Robinson House at Manassas to catch the sesquicentennial, before I had a chance to provide a little context.

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