Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Getting To Know Your Man

It was nice to hear Peter Carmichael in his Civil War Talk Radio interview mention Stephen Berry’s fine book, All That Makes A Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South
(Oxford University Press, 2003).  Pete mentioned that the book has unfortunately not received the kind of attention it deserves.  I have to concur with that assesment.  It just so happens that I’ve been going through parts of the book again in connection with one of my research projects.  The book fills an important gap in our understanding of the emotional lives of southern men on the eve of the Civil War.  There is a strong superficial interest in masculinity which can be seen in the goofy references to Southern chivalry or christian warriors.  It’s not that the concepts are meaningless, just that most of the people who reference them have little interest in getting below the surface of the topic.  The emotional and intellectual lives of Southern men, especially Jackson and Lee, were supposedly as transparent to themselves as they are to us.  With the help of gender and cultural studies we’ve made much progress in this area, but according to Stephen Berry:

For all these advances, however, the story of Southern masculinity continues to be understood better in its postures and poses, more for what it claimed to be than for what it was.  In their studies of duels and barbecues, hunting and stump speaking, scholars have examined with greater penetration the archetypically masculine aspects of Southern life than the dithering dreams and doubts that surely dominated men’s inner experiences of themselves.  Of the consequences for the South of its hypermasculinized culture, much has been suggested.  Of the consequences for the men living in and through this culture little is known.  Of the general tenor of men’s inner, emotional lives little has been said or written.  As a result, men are denied a measure of their humanity, which, while in no way so egregious as that denied women for centuries, is nevertheless an impediment to understanding. (p. 11)

All too often we talk about courage and other masculine qualities of the men who fought on the war’s bloodiest fields without ever wondering what these concepts meant to the men themselves.  More importantly, we pay little attention to how these ideas were learned, acted upon, and reinforced in the years leading up to the war – at a time when many of these men were coming of age.  It’s as if the common language we use to describe Southern men (especially the ever popular Lee, Jackson, and Stuart) fail to tell us anything that goes beyond the paintings and photographs.

What I mean to say is that you should read this book.

Drew G. Faust: Harvard President and Civil War Historian

By now most of you are no doubt aware of the fact that Drew G. Faust has been appointed to the top spot at Harvard.  Today I spent some time talking about the significance of this decision with my women’s history course.  While our discussion focused on this development within the much broader historical context of women’s entry into education I kept coming back in my own mind to the publicity that Civil War scholarship is getting in connection with this appointment.  Everyone knows that the new president of Harvard is a prominent Civil War scholar and for some reason what I like about this is that she is a woman.  She is a woman in what is all too often perceived as an area of history dominated by men who obsess over every detail of the battlefield.  I think the fanfare about Faust’s appointment serves as positive publicity in connection to the way I suspect most people perceive our field.  Anyone who has read her scholarship on slaveholding women, Confederate nationalism, and James H. Hammond appreciates Faust’s level of scholarship and sophistication.  While I’ve read most of her books my favorite article by her was published a few years back in the Journal of Southern History titled “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying” [(February 2001): 3-39].  In the article Faust provides an analysis of how the battlefield challenged cultural assumptions concerning the ideal death in the nineteenth century.  I’ve read this article through at least three during the course of my research on how Confederate soldiers understood the experience of watching comrades executed usually for desertion.

In short, Faust is a wonderful ambassador for Civil War scholarship.  For a brief moment the face of Civil War scholarship is not an overweight reenactor or someone who can tell us where Grant sneezed on the battlefield or someone trying to hold tight to some strand of the Lost Cause.  Not only is Faust a serious scholar, but she serves to remind the public that women have assumed a position of prominence in a field that has for too long been claimed as a man’s domain.

Civil War Odds and Ends

Check out the programs for two upcoming conferences that will focus heavily on the Civil War, the South, and Virginia history.  The first is the Second Annual Virginia Forum which is scheduled for April 13-14 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  This conference brings together scholars who focus on all areas of Virginia history.  I took part last year and had a wonderful time.  The American Civil War Center and Virginia Historical Society will host a conference titled “In The Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Values” on March 23-24.  Participants include James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Nina Silber, David L. Lewis and George Rable.

HNN includes two interviews with James McPherson and Eric Foner which were taped at the recent meeting of the AHA in Atlanta.  The session was titled “Why I became a historian.”  Finally, Chandra Manning will be interviewed today on Civil War Talk Radio followed next week by Gabor Boritt.

Finally, the latest issue of the OAH Magazine of History focuses on Abraham Lincoln.  The staff is planning a few issues devoted to Lincoln over the next two years.  If you are a high school history teacher I highly recommend subscribing to this publication.  The lesson plans are all first-rate and the articles are written by some of the leading scholars in their respective fields.

Peter Carmichael on Civil War Talk Radio

I thoroughly enjoyed Friday’s interview with UNC-Greensboro historian Peter S. Carmichael.  Check out the interview, and more importantly, read The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunionit’s well worth the time.  I wanted to take a few minutes to comment on a few points made during the interview.  Carmichael touched on a number of issues in connection with his latest research, including his thoughts about battlefield interpretation and on the way the “last generation” forces us to rethink our assumptions about how we remember the Civil War and the postwar period.

At one point Carmichael touched on a point regarding the tendency for more traditional military narratives to ignore the ideological/political convictions of the soldiers on the field.  The question that prompted this comment asked about the experiences of Carmichael’s sample on the battlefield and their reputation as committed Confederates which in some cases bordered on the fanatical.  The traditional study can help us but little in understanding how men experienced the war since they tend to be seen as mindless chess pieces that are manipulated by their commanders.  Carmichael made the point by noting that the battlefield is a “site where you see the most extreme form of political action.”  For the men that comprise his study their battlefield experiences were a “consequence of their world view.”  Carmichael qualified this by giving a nod to the work of Bell I. Wiley who laid the foundation for our analytical studies of soldier life.  While Wiley tended to ignore the role of ideology as a motivator his research remains valuable to understanding the “material reality” of the common soldier.  I was pleased to hear that Carmichael is preparing the volume on Civil War soldiers for the Littlefield Series which is scheduled for release during the sesquicentennial.  He plans to provide both a historiographical overview of the field of soldier studies as well as a comparative account of Union and Confederate soldiers.  [Speaking of soldiers Chandra Manning is scheduled to be interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio in the next few weeks and her long-awaited study is also set for publication with Knopf in the near future.]

I was especially interested in Carmichael’s comments on the postwar years and memory.  He prefaced his comments by telling a short story about John W. Daniel who in 1867 spoke to a group of women at Manassas and told them to forget about the past.   Daniel’s comments serve to remind us that our own perceptions, which tend to be wrapped up in the blanket of Lost Cause ideology, was not by any means universally subscribed to by white southerners.  We tend to generalize about the different regions, and the most common move is to compare the industrial-capitalistic North with white Southerners who were defending the values of a traditional agricultural and peaceful society.  Carmichael’s young Virginians stand in sharp contrast with this overly simplistic image as they were pushing for a more progressive and expansive economy in the years leading up to the war.  That they continued to do so following the war did not represent any kind of betrayal, but a continuation of what they had assumed would further the interests of the Commonwealth before the fighting had started.  Of course they wanted all of this within a slave-holding society; the point is that what appears to be a mutually exclusive set of values is more a function of how we choose to remember and interpret the Southern past.  Is it any surprise that the way we remember certain iconic figures such as R. E. Lee – who of course is the paradigm example of this traditional picture of the South – is so grounded in an interpretation that stands in sharp contrast with our generalizations about the North in the nineteenth century.  And any attempt at questioning this is deemed to be “P.C” or “revisionist” or whatever – rather than the result of serious historical inquiry.  It is curious to me why some people simply assume such a defensive attitude in dealing with historians that question or suggest that our popular images of the past may not hold up under close scrutiny.  It reminds me of an out-of-control child screaming at the top of his lungs.

Carmichael reminds us that postwar Southern society was a “society up for grabs.”  While our popular memory assumes a society that struggled against the tide of modernism, capitalism, and black political power historians in recent years have uncovered a much more complex region.  Reconstruction was not a disaster for the white South; in fact we now know that increased black political action led to the first state schools in some parts of the South and other pieces of legislation that were impossible during the antebellum years when the elite slaveholding class governed.  In other words, not all white Southerners were on the same page after the war.  There is no better example of this than the four years of Readjuster control under the leadership of former Confederate Major General William Mahone.  The Readjusters increased black political office-holding which in turn led to an increase in the number of black students in the public schools as well as black teachers.  Mahone was despised by many white Virginians for threatening white supremacy and he was seen as a hero by both black and white Virginians.  While their control of the state government only lasted four years it is incredible to think that most Virginians no nothing about it.  The reason why we don’t remember is because we prefer to think of the white South as unified around a certain set of political assumptions.  In my research on Mahone and the Readjusters I went through scores of history texts that were used in the Virginia schools between 1900 and 1940 and could barely find a word about this important political movement.

The study of how American have chosen to remember the Civil War is not a conspiracy concocted by liberal-minded/revisionist/Eastern elite/Yankee historians who are bent on destroying all that is “good and pure” about the South.  [As I mentioned in a recent post most of these historians were born and bred in the South and educated in the South.]  One of the points that I am trying to make here is that there was never a time after the war when white Southerners were in agreement over how to remember the war.  The above-mentioned story about John Daniel reminds us that plenty of people were willing to give the back of their hand to the memorialization of the past and William Mahone was content to use the past to help with his own business and political interests.  White Southerners have been challenging the Lost Cause history of the war from the beginning.

Serious research is full of surprises; unfortunately, those surprises are sometimes perceived in a way that gives little weight or reflects little interest in how those conclusions were arrived at.  As someone who was born in New Jersey and came to the serious study of history in his mid-20′s I am fascinated by the complexity of Southern history.  My hope is to understand it better.

Professional v. Amateur: My Spin

Recent posts by Brooks Simpson, Eric Wittenberg, and J. David Petruzzi have got me thinking about this distinction between professional and amateur historians.  I may be wrong about this, but the Civil War may be the only sub-field of historical studies where this is an issue.  Three posts on this topic in a week suggests that something is in the air.  I actually don’t have much to say, but I wanted to take this opportunity to address both Eric’s question of another advanced degree and the above-mentioned distinction.  First, I agree entirely with Brooks’s carving of the terrain:

If there’s a meaningful difference, it is between academic historians (those housed in research or teaching institutions) and non-academic historians, and that difference is understood in part by how these people are funded, paid, and rewarded.

If the distinction does any work at all it is in allowing us to make practical distinctions rather than generalizations about the quality of the work produced by those on either side.  I’ve always considered myself to be an amateur/non-academic historian and a professional teacher.  I am first and foremost a high school history teacher.  I am paid and rewarded in this capacity and it provides me with a great deal of what goes into my own understanding of self.  I can imagine giving up my writing and research, but find it almost impossible to imagine myself outside the field of education.

I decided to pursue an M.A. degree in history at the University of Richmond in 2002 after I failed to gain entrance into a well-regarded PhD program.   My ego was a bit bruised and I am even willing to admit that it was over the superficial issue of having the “PhD” next to my name.  At that point I had already published a few book reviews in the Washington Times and North and South magazine along with a lengthy article in a local historical society journal.  Once I came out of my self-induced funk, however, I realized that the issue was not the rank but the additional opportunity that an advanced degree might offer me in terms of interaction and publishing.  I pursued the M.A. degree to get to a certain place where I could interact with people who share my specific interests and who actively pursue answers to specific questions that I care about.  If it turned out that an M.A. was not sufficient for my needs I might have gone back and taken the plunge.  As it turned out the M.A has allowed me to function in a way that I find rewarding on an intellectual level.

Whether my friends and other acquaintances that I’ve come into contact with through publishing and conferences consider me to be an academic/amateur or professional historian doesn’t matter much to me at all.  I too hope that my published work stands or falls on the merits of the research and the quality of the argument.