Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Looking for the Footnotes?

One of the books that I am currently reading in preparation for my Fall Semester course on Abraham Lincoln is Orville V. Burton’s The Age of Lincoln.  I noticed early on the lack of footnotes, but didn’t realize until later that Burton or the publisher had decided to place them online as part of the book’s website.  The notes are broken down by chapter and each section begins with bibliographical essay followed by the individual notes, which include links to primary documents and other sources where available.  This is the first time that I’ve seen this approach to documentation utilized. 

 

Two Important Lee Symposiums

Back in April I mentioned that I will be taking part in a Lee symposium planned for late September through October.  The talks will take place on Wednesday evenings and the speakers include Gary Gallagher, William C. Davis, Robert K. Krick, J. Holt Merchant, and Elizabeth Pryor.  I have been asked, along with historian Bill Bergen, to prepare some remarks on the final evening which will include a roundtable discussion with a few of the speakers and the audience.  There is no website for the event as of yet, but I will supply more information when it becomes available. 

I’ve hinted at a second Lee symposium, but I decided to wait until I could confirm my invitation to participate.  This second conference is being sponsored by the Lee Bicentennial Commission of Charleston, Inc.  They’ve organized at least one event already and are responsible for the 1-day symposium which will take place in Charleston on November 10th at the Citadel.  The symposium, including the list of speakers, is being organized by well-known historian Gordon Rhea.  He has put together a list of heavy-hitters, including Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, James I. Robertson, Joe Glatthaar, William Marvel, and Emory Thomas.  Please don’t ask how I managed to get on this list.  All I can say is that it is an honor and that I am looking forward to the trip.  There is a good chance that the event will be covered by C-SPAN and there are plans to publish the proceedings.   

 

New Crater Book

Yesterday on my way to Richmond I stopped at Borders to pick up some coffee and kill some time.  As I browsed the shelves I noticed a new book on the battle of the Crater by Alan Axelrod titled The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission.  I am pretty good about staying on top of new studies of the Crater, but somehow this one flew completely under my radar screen.  Now I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t say that I was just a little disappointed to see a fresh book-length study of the battle.  Would it utilize the same sources and/or touch on similar interpretive strands?  In short, would it steal my thunder?

The first thing I did was go back to the bibliography and endnotes and within a few seconds my fears were relieved.  The bibliography is very short, but what is even more troubling are the sources cited.  They include my chapter on the Crater which recently appeared in the Sheehan-Dean volume on Civil War soldiers (released just this past December) as well as Jacob Burkhardt’s North and South article which appeared in the last issue – meaning April/May 2007.  Are we to assume that this book went to press some time in May?  Was it peer reviewed at all by the publisher Carroll & Graff?  The notes indicate that Axelrod relied on a small number of sources to build his narrative; they include the O.R., the book on the battle by Cavanaugh and Marvel (subtitled The Horrid Pit) as well as a few pamphlets that are readily available.  These sources as well as a few others are cited continuously throughout.  While my article is cited in the bibliography it isn’t referred to once in the endnotes.  Even more alarming is the complete absence of archival material.  What is cited at least once is Axelrod’s previous book, The Idiot’s Guide to the Civil War.  As if that wasn’t enough James McPherson provided an endorsement for the book on the back cover.

I did spend some time perusing through the book and have to say that it does provide an effective and somewhat detailed tactical overview of the battle and the decisions involved in the planning and execution of the battle.  Axelrod also looks into the Joint Committee hearing that followed the disaster.  Unfortunately, we don’t get anything approaching serious analysis of the salient factors that make this battle such an important interpretive opportunity.

 

Philip Schwarz on R.E. Lee and Visibility

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who also happens to be a historian.  The two of us are scheduled to take part in a conference devoted to Robert E. Lee which will take place at the University of Virginia in the fall.  I am also tentatively scheduled to take part in a conference on Lee in South Carolina in November – more information once it is confirmed.  For this latter conference I was asked to explore African-American perceptions of Lee, which I enthusiastically accepted.  As we talked over lunch I suggested some possible ways to start the paper; my idea was to look into the unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond by exploring the black newspaper, the Richmond Planet.  The overall goal of the paper as I am now conceiving of it is to use Lee as a window into black perceptions of the Civil War more generally. 

My friend suggested that I think about using the famous incident involving Lee in June 1865 and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.  While Dr. Charles Minnegerode was preparing to administer communion a black man approached leaving the congregation in a state of shock.  Lee supposedly remained perfectly calm and proceeded to receive communion next to this black individual.  The incident supposedly reflects Lee’s humility and moral superiority at a time when most white Southerners were still dealing with the psychological effects of emancipation and defeat.  I realized that this was the perfect example.  My friend suggested that I look into the sources behind the story to see if it could even be verified, but I was more interested in shifting the perspective just a bit.  As I thought about the story I asked if anyone had looked at it from the perspective of the black man.  What was he doing in this particular church and what do his actions symbolize at this volatile moment?  It was a rhetorical question since I assumed that no one had looked at the story from this perspective.  Regardless, I at least believed that the story would provide a perfect thread from the war to more recent interpretive questions surrounding the apparent lack of interest in the Civil War among black Americans.  More importantly, the lack of attention on this black individual could serve as a metaphor for the overall tendency to ignore issues of race and slavery in our popular perceptions of the Civil War.  [Check out this earlier post on the attempt to address slavery at Lee's Arlington.]

The first thing I did when I arrived home was to look for information online.  One of the first sites to be listed was a talk presented by historian Philip Schwarz at Stratford Hall back in 2000.  It turns out that this talk addressed just the kind of questions that I was now excited to investigate.  Schwarz analyzes the evidence for the story which includes a newspaper article published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1905 and an article which appeared in the Confederate Veteran a few months later – both written by one Col. T. L. Broun of Charleston, West Virginia.  The article explores Broun’s background, and more importantly, the fact that the two pieces were written as Virginia instituted Jim Crow legislation following the passage of a new constitution.  Schwarz reminds the reader that what we are reading is Broun’s interpretation of Lee’s actions forty years earlier.  We have nothing that helps us understand how Lee himself viewed the presence of this individual:

And what about Lee’s conduct? So many people tell the story of Lee’s response to the black man’s action as conciliatory and accepting. Perhaps it was, but does Broun? Listen to Broun’s language: Lee, “ignoring the action and presence of the negro,” and with a “lofty conception of duty . . . under such provoking and irritating circumstances” walked to the chancel rail. “By this action of Gen. Lee,” Broun continued, “the services were conducted as if the negro had not been present. It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying and offensive circumstances.”

What I find so interesting is that Broun does not appear to be interested in Lee’s motivation or the black man.  There is no indication that Broun ever interviewed Lee (assuming the incident even took place) and there is no need to discuss the matter with a black man when it is assumed that his actions were reflective of an effort to “inaugurate the ‘new régime’ to offend and humiliate” the worshipers.  I think Schwarz is onto something when he suggests that the remembered incident took place when white supremacy was in doubt, but the act of remembering took place once that superiority was ensured through Jim Crow legislation.  In short, Broun was using this story as a way of justifying and celebrating Virginia’s recent turn towards legal segregation. 

Schwarz’s article is well worth your time.  It has given me plenty to think about as I collect material for this project.