On Saturday evening historian Michael Birdwell of Tennessee Tech discussed the history of Civil War films. Michael was kind enough to put together a filmography of roughly 1,300 Civil War related titles. In addition to his analysis we watched a few clips from a selection of films which served to inform the discussion. The final clip was a light-hearted and classic Bugs Bunny episode which I am sure many of you are familiar with. The cartoon is a window into our biases about the South, slavery, and the Civil War. At one point Bugs refers to the war as the War Between the States. Notice when Yosemite Sam, who plays a Confederate officer, confronts a black-faced and banjo playing Bugs Bunny with the words: "It’s one of our boys…Hey there boy…." When the slave plays Yankee Doodle and is threatened by Yosemite Sam Bugs pleads: "Don’t beat me massa."
Every few days I check online newspapers for articles on Robert E. Lee. I am putting together a talk for two conferences that I will take part in later this year. My particular focus is on how black Americans remember Lee and the Civil War more generally. Here are a couple of items that I’ve come across in recent days. Is it just me or are Juneteenth celebrations making a return?
The announcement came nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had little impact on Texas due to the lack of Union troops to enforce the executive order. But with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee in April 1865 and Gen. Granger’s arrival, forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance. It is said slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the street with jubilant celebrations upon hearing the news.
In this case Lee and his army serve as an obstacle for emancipation. If you are in Lexington today you can join "Bud" Robertson and the United Daughters of the Confederacy for a celebration of Lee’s character. My guess is that little will be said about slavery, race and other divisive issues. "I said it’s a celebration." And finally, here is how the Florida chapter of the League of the South has chosen to remember Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday. Why the hell wasn’t I invited?
A reader left a very thoughtful comment to my post on the Gallagher interview in CWTI. [For the entire comment scroll down to #15.] I think it is worth asking the questions posed not as a way to criticize the genre, but as a way to better understand its popularity in Civil War circles specifically.
Why is it that the Civil War attracts so many people to write microhistories and tactical studies (in a way that every other conflict does not)? Even acknowledging factors that make it more probable for someone to write about a Civil War engagement (number of participants, availability of sources, number of engagements, etc), there are a disproportionate number. Is it a way of providing closure for the war that avoids anything that could possibly relate to today and our lives as we live them? Writing, or reading, 450 pages on the Railroad Cut is a nice way of telling ourselves we have learned something about history and the Civil War. Ultimately though, where does this lead us? It is akin to memorizing the telephone book. You know a lot of facts, but what can you do with all of those facts. Is the point of learning to collect knowledge, or is the point of learning to actually do something with that knowledge.
Today I had a very pleasant lunch with a friend and fellow Civil War historian here in C-Ville. Among the topics we talked about was an apparent decision on the part of the editors at the Journal of American History to no longer publish reviews of Civil War campaigns. I thought this was unusual so when I arrived home I went through the last four issues and lo and behold there is not one review of a Civil War campaign. In all fairness there are plenty of Civil War related studies, but nothing that would count as a battle history. The decision must be fairly recent since I was able to find a review of James L. McDonough’s Nashville: The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble in the December 2005 issue. I don’t know of any other area that is subject to such a sweeping condemnation. Without any written explanation it is impossible to state their rationale with any precision. That said, it is easy to speculate that this probably has something to do with a bias against Civil War military historians. Perhaps the editors have been flooded with the overwhelming number of books from within this particular genre and decided that it was too much trouble to wade through for specific titles that were worth reviewing.
This is unfortunate as there are a number of first-rate campaign studies that merit serious review in any scholarly journal focused on American history. George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! and Ken Noe’s Perryville have both been reviewed in the JAH which makes this decision all the more difficult to understand. The Society of Civil War HIstorians ought to write up a petition in protest. If I come across additional information I will be sure to pass it on.
[Hat tip to Ralph Luker at HNN via Manan Ahmed]
I actually watched the whole thing, which should be sufficient evidence that I am going insane.