I recently realized that my reading patterns in Civil War history tend to follow individual historians rather than subjects. In other words, when I am looking for books to read I inevitably look at authors rather than subjects. I’m not quite sure how to explain this and I am also not sure when this started. Perhaps this tendency goes back to my time as a philosophy major. My focus was more on individual philosophers rather than subjects. By far my two favorites were David Hume and Immanuel Kant. I was just as content reading Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding as I was reading his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and with Kant it extended from his work in metaphysics to anthropology. Of course there were others, but I was guaranteed to be challenged no matter where I looked in their writings.
On the other hand, my interest in individual historians may be connected to my own limited work in the field. I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult it is to say something new and interesting and I am constantly amazed by how many first-rate minds are currently toiling in this field. I have absolutely no interest reading another book on Lincoln, but I will read anything that Stephen Berry writes. His last book on Confederate soldiers was, unfortunately, overlooked by many. His gender analysis of what motivated southern men to fight and how they defined themselves in masculine terms is well worth a read and moves us beyond unit loyalty, ideology and politics. To a certain extent the subject matters little to me; what matters is that I can anticipate being challenged and learning something new – even with a subject that has been dissected through and through.
Jason Phillips is one of the younger guns in the field. I served on a panel with Jason at the 2007 AHA on Civil War soldiers. His book is based on his dissertation which analyzes the roll of rumor in the Confederate ranks and home front. I see this as taking the concept of contingency one step further. Not only is it important not to read back into the past from a point where the outcome is known, but it is also necessary to distinguish between what seemed to be the case as opposed to what was "true" at any given moment. I read Jason’s recent article "The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence" [Journal of Southern History, (November 2996): 753-89] and was very impressed. Keep an eye out for this one.
Finally, David Blight is set to release a book that contains two slave narratives one of which was used by the NPS at Fredericksburg for their new documentary on civilian life. The book includes an extensive introduction by Blight. My interest in Civil War memory can be traced back directly to my reading of his Race and Reunion. Like many people I can see the book’s weak spots, but its significance must be understood in the way it defined a field of study and has led to a small army of historians who have investigated further the ways in which various groups of Americans engaged in the battle to control the memory of the war. Blight could write about any topic in American history and I would be one of the first to purchase it.
Last night I attended the first session of UVA’s “Lee at 200″ conference which will run through the end of October. Each week a historian will address a different aspect of Lee’s life and legacy with a roundtable discussion scheduled for Oct. 31. I am scheduled along with two other panelists to lead this discussion. Given my role in this symposium I plan to attend as many sessions as possible. Bob Krick kicked things off with a talk on Lee’s legacy and commented on recent challenges to his reputation. It was basically the same talk he presented a few months back at a “conference” hosted by the SCV. I blogged about it then; click here for the post which links to an even earlier post on this talk. At the beginning he quoted from three nameless historians which he used as representative samples of how academics seem to treat Lee. He described them as anti-Lee which I still believe is misleading. One passage was clearly from Alan Nolan who I actually do believe comes closest to fulfilling this description. Nolan treats the historical Lee as if he is on trial and seems more concerned about arriving at a certain conclusion rather than understanding the historical reality in which Lee operated. We can write Nolan’s book off as sloppy scholarship.
I thought the other two passages were from Thomas Connelly and Michael Fellman, but during the Q&A I learned that he had read from William G. Piston and Carol Reardon. I asked Krick if he didn’t think that he had set up a strawman argument in the way he so quickly assumed what motivates these writers. For someone who is so suspicious of psycho-history it is strange to see Krick so easily assume the psychological qualities of Reardon and Piston. My underlying problem with his talk is that I still have no idea what he means by “anti-Lee.” Is anything that challenges the standard picture of Lee to be placed in this category? Why can’t we be content in acknowledging that historians often disagree with one another about the past? I’ve never met Piston, but I’ve talked with Reardon on a number of occasions and she doesn’t strike me as someone who has a personal need to tear down anyone from the past. I actually believe she is a pretty damn good historian. Our job as historians is to challenge interpretations we disagree with by demonstrating where we believe the weaknesses to be. Suggesting that someone is “anti-Lee” tells us more about the individual making the accusation than anything connected with the interpretation in question.
On a different note I should say that Krick’s latest reference book Civil War Weather in Virginia is well worth buying if you are the kind of person who needs to know all thing ANV related. I recently completed a review of the book for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and will post it when it is published.
Today students in my Lincoln course were treated to a visit by William W. Freehling. [Shame on you if you haven't yet read his second volume of Road to Disunion.] Professor Freehling joined us to discuss one of his own articles on Virginia’s “reluctant” decision to secede from the Union. The article in question was published a few years ago in North and South magazine which means that it has a solid scholarly foundation and is accessible to a wide audience. I assigned the article to my students because I wanted them to have a deeper understanding of how white southerners in different parts of the South responded to Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 and, in the case of Virginia, his decision to reinforce Fort Sumter and subsequent decision to call for 75,000 soldiers. We have a tendency to think of the South as monolithic which obscures the fact that white southerners were anything but unified in their response to the events between the presidential election and Lincoln’s call for soldiers to put “down the rebellion.”
Professor Freehling steered the class through a number of questions addressed in the article and asked students to think and respond to his own questions. If there was any nervousness among the students it quickly dissipated as a result of Professor Freehling’s sharp wit and sincere curiosity about their understanding of the issues. Those students that I’ve had a chance to talk to had nothing but praise for Professor Freehling. They learned a great deal and had a good time interacting with him. I want my students to meet people who work in the field of history and to think of the life of the mind as a viable career choice.
One of the goals I’ve been working towards in my elective courses is in finding ways to bridge this artificial divide between the way history is taught in high schools as opposed to an upper-level history course on the college level. On college campuses instructors expect students to come to grips with the analytical process of historical argumentation and the ways in which interpretations evolve over time (historiography). High school history is still stuck in the rut of the textbook approach, which views the subject as a collection of facts that need to be memorized. The textbook reinforces a static view of the past that is neatly divided into little sections and sub-sections with their own little headings.
I have a feeling that a few dinner conversations will touch on today’s class.
I arrived home today to find a package from historian Gordon C. Rhea. Inside was a personalized copy of his new book, In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness Through Cold Harbor (LSU Press, 2007). The book brings together text by Gordon and the beautiful photographs of Chris E. Heisey. This one is a gem and will no doubt make for a very nice Christmas gift.