Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Looking Beyond Our Base: An Appeal to the SCWH

Yesterday I was asked to put together a panel for the June 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians which will take place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The topic of the panel is the teaching of the Civil War in the high school classroom.  I’ve got most of the line-up worked out and it promises to be an interesting panel.  The first person I contacted was James Percoco who teaches at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia. He is one of the most innovative teachers in the field and he has published extensively on topics related to the classroom as well as public history.   His most recent book is titled My Summer With Lincoln which is forthcoming from the Fordham University Press.  I am excited about the opportunity to talk about a subject I care deeply about and just as pleased that Jim is available to take part.  That said, I do have one concern.  I have no doubt that we will receive some excellent feedback from whomever is in the audience, but more than likely it won’t be from fellow high school teachers.  The format for this conference will be familiar to those who attend academic gatherings and the participants will likely be the same faces that can be seen at the SHA, OAH, and AHA.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with this as academic conferences serve an important function for historians engaged in scholarly pursuits.  The OAH has done quite a bit to broaden its membership base to include high school teachers, but I wonder if the SCWH can go one step further. 

I remember some comments from Ethan Rafuse a few months back when this conference was first advertised.  He was concerned about the financial demands involved in traveling to another conference and suggested that the organization concentrate on setting up sessions at well-established venues.  Ethan has a point here, but only if the mission of the SCWH is envisioned along similar lines.  I think there is a unique opportunity to shape this conference and the organization as a whole in a way that branches off in new directions.  We work in a field that enjoys a great amount of attention and interest from the general public.  Civil War historians enjoy a notoriety that is unparalleled in the academic world of historical studies.  Many have reached out to the general public in various ways through roundtable talks, battlefield tours, and conferences such as Gary Gallagher’s battlefield tours/lectures through the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Studies and Mark Snell’s program at Shepherd University.  What these programs suggest to me is that there is a demand for a setting that fosters serious thought about a subject we are all passionate about.  My participation in Snell’s most recent conference on Civil War memory has convinced me that the interest level of the general public does extend beyond the narrow confines of battlefields and generals. 

I am not suggesting anything along the lines of radical change in the planning for our first meeting next June.  We can still set up panels that address the most obscure topics under the sun, but it is easy to imagine a fairly wide range of subjects that more general Civil War enthusiasts would find interesting.  What I am suggesting is that the SCWH begin by making sure the conference is advertised widely.  For example, readers of North and South magazine along with a few of the other glossies should know about the meeting.  Perhaps a few panels could be organized to address perceptions between the general public and the academic world.  We’ve surely seen a few of those issues heat up recently in the blogosphere.  The inclusion of a broader base could help foster closer ties between the general public and academic community.   Philadelphia includes a number of Civil War-related sites.  The SCWH could follow the AHA and organize tours of some of these sites.

I’ve been a member of the SCWH for a few years now and I couldn’t be more excited about the decision to hold a conference.  Historians talk a great deal about the importance of history in the life and identity of a country.  The SCWH is in a unique position to give substance to that mantra.  This is an opportunity to shape our organization in a way that has the broadest appeal without losing its scholarly focus and commitment to furthering our understanding of this crucial moment in our nation’s history.   

Another Take on the Forrest Debate

This is an op-ed piece written by my friend and fellow Civil War historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean.  The piece appeared in the Florida Times Union on March 13, 2007 during the height of the debate surrounding the changing of the school named after Forrest.  Click here for the latest.

"Forrest: Wrong Man for School"

The current debate over renaming Nathan Bedford Forrest High School has generated some unusually inaccurate representations of the past. Two issues have been singled out: the actions of Forrest’s troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864 and Forrest’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.

The most authoritative assessment by a professional historian, John Cimprich’s Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory concludes that Confederate troops did massacre black Union troops at Fort Pillow in 1864. Black soldiers died at rates twice as high as that of the white soldiers inside the fort. Anecdotal evidence from Confederates and surviving Union soldiers also demonstrates that Confederates killed black soldiers before they surrendered. Nothing suggests that this was a premeditated act but that hardly lessons its shame. This was not an isolated incident, as recent books on Civil War atrocities make plain. The North’s decision to enlist and arm black men to fight against the South enraged white southerners and Confederates responded with acts of personal violence at Fort Pillow, Saltville, the Crater, and numerous other engagements.

Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It has been noted that he resigned from the Klan after it became more violent. This action suggests that there was some acceptable or benign KKK. Such an institution never existed. From the moment of the war’s end, if not before, white southerners began organizing to narrow the meaning of emancipation for African Americans. The KKK, and other groups like it, sought to deny blacks the right to participate in the civic life of the South. Like modern terrorist groups, they used both premeditated and random violence to terrify and isolate a subject population. They were widely supported by white southerners, and even after their ostensible destruction by federal legal efforts in the 1870s, Klan cells continued to target black leaders through their home in the Democratic Party.

The most important date in this controversy is 1958, the year that the School Board commemorated Forrest by naming a school after him. That act came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required the desegregation of school facilities across the country. Naming a school after Forrest added insult to the injury already done to black Jacksonville residents by the fact of segregated schools. It stands as a parting shot in the debate over access to public education and should be repudiated today.

In recent weeks, writers in the Times-Union have referred to Forrest as a "civil rights advocate" (3/6/07) and a "humane" slave trader (12/29/06). These descriptions are historical absurdities. Slave traders made their living literally off of the flesh of others; there was nothing humane in the practice, as scholarship over the past forty years has amply demonstrated. After the Civil War, few white northerners and even fewer white southerners worked to protect the rights of black Americans. The federal government abandoned blacks to the violence and ostracism of the Jim Crow South. The above statements reflect a desperate attempt to remake Forrest in our values. This is not just an impossibility but intellectually and morally dishonest. As our society changes, so do our values. Nathan Bedford Forrest does not represent the values of our day. Does this mean that we should forget him? No, but neither should we commemorate him.

SCWH Annual Meeting In Richmond

The annual meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians will take place in Richmond this November as part of the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  Finally, I will get to attend the SHA.  The SCWH’s panel will feature A. Wilson Greene, John Coski, and Alex Wise.  Greene will discuss interpreting combat at Civil War historic sites; Coski will examine the recent challenges that the Museum of the Confederacy has faced in promoting the history of the Confederacy; and Wise will discuss the American Civil War Center’s new exhibit which interprets the Civil War from multiple perspectives in the former capital of the Confederacy.  This promises to be a first-rate panel.

The 2008 meeting of the SHA is scheduled for New Orleans and I’ve been asked to join a panel for the meeting of the SCWH.  The panel will cover Civil War and technology.  I will be joining Mark Grimsley, Anne Sarah Rubin, and George Rable who organized the panel.  My topic is Civil War blogging, which is perfect as I’ve been wanting to write something about this "long strange trip." 

Click here for the SHA’s 2008 call for papers.

More Appropriate As An E-Book?

Today I received in the mail a copy of Ulysses S. Grant: A Bibliography compiled by Marie E. Kelsey (Praeger, 2005), which I will review for H-Net.  The book is 475 pages and contains 4,242 entries, which are broken down into various categories.  At first glance it looks to be a fairly comprehensive list of everything published about Grant.  Kelsey provides a short overview of Grant’s life as well as the organization of the entries.  To be honest, I have no idea as to how I will go about reviewing this book.

The book is clearly a valuable reference tool for those researching Grant’s life, but what I find curious is its publication in the traditional print format.  It seems to me that an online publication would make better sense.  My guess is that college and university libraries will purchase the book, but given the developments of online publishing it seems hard to justify a print format when so many more people could access the immense amount of work that went into this online.  Of course, there is the question of the terms of public access, but that is no longer a barrier to the online approach.  At this point I am not calling for a radical shifting from print to online or e-book format, but in regard to certain types of published works it does seem like a no-brainer.