Where I Won’t Be on March 28-29

I will travel fairly long distances to take part in conferences on the Civil War.  The chance to interact with fellow historians who are as passionate about this period in American history is always an invigorating experience for me.  One of my readers passed on this link for a conference on the Gettysburg Campaign which is being sponsored by Liberty University.  It looks like a super line-up, including Steve Woodworth, Ethan Rafuse, Kent Masterson Brown, Eric Wittenberg, and Tom Desjardin.  I thoroughly enjoyed Woodworth’s book on the Army of the Tennessee as well as Rafuse’s biography of McClellan and Brown’s study of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg.  I hope to get around to Eric’s and J.D.’s book at some point in the near future.  Lynchburg is only an hour from Charlottesville, but even if it was right around the corner from my home I would not attend.  Simply put, I wish to have no connection whatsoever with this so-called institution of higher learning which was founded by such an incredibly hate-filled lunatic  Of course, I am speaking of Jerry Falwell. 

While I disagree with much of what Christopher Hitchens thinks about politics and culture I thought he hit the nail on the head in this interview with Anderson Cooper following Falwell’s death. 

Falwell’s madness hit home after 9-11 when he suggested the following:

God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.

And, I know that
I’ll hear from them for this. But,
throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court
system,
throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The
abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not
be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we
make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists,
and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively
trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the
American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I
point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

As someone who lost a cousin on 9-11 you can probably guess that I am pretty sensitive to such blatantly moronic statements.  I could list other claims made by this nut case over the course of his public career, but there would be little point in doing so.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend much time worrying about Falwell or the other charlatans out there who make their home on my channel 20.

As much as I would like to hear some of the speakers lined up for this conference I can find no justification for shelling out money that will be used to help perpetuate an extension of that man’s sick moral outlook. 

Review of Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story

In the introduction to his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, historian Bernard Bailyn briefly examines how distance from the historical event under analysis shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories “that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself.” For the historian, “the outcome [of the event] is still in question,” writes Bailyn, and “emotions are still deeply engaged.” This emotional attachment to the event by historians “especially those involved in the event in question” leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where “earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away.”  As I read these passages Bailyn is not suggesting that distance necessarily leads to philosophical objectivity, but that it tends to allow historians to attain a more detached perspective where they are able to ask more engaging perspectives that address multiple perspectives.

The historiography of the Civil War presents us with an interesting counterexample to Bailyn’s outline.  On the one hand the historical profession has in the last few decades attained a kind of objectivity that has resulted in an outpouring of studies that have shed new light on old questions as well as a wide spectrum of new topics.  While this scholarship has broadened our understanding of mid-nineteenth century America it has also revealed the fact that not everyone (perhaps not even most Civil War enthusiasts) have yet to move beyond the point where their “emotions are still deeply engaged.”  Examples abound from the public display of the Confederate flag to questions about Lincoln’s civil liberties record to the divisive topics of slavery and race.  I should say that I see nothing necessarily wrong with having one’s emotions engaged in the work of uncovering the past as long as it does not become an obstacle to the historical process.  In the case of the Civil War and especially (though not exclusively) in reference to topics related to the antebellum South and Confederacy the emotional hold that the past exercises on many continues to result in materials that ultimately tell us more about our own values than much of anything having to do with history.

We see this very clearly in the documentary Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story, which was released last year by Franklin Springs Family Media.  The video is produced and directed by Ken Carpenter and based on the book, Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend by Richard Williams, which offers an account of Jackson’s views on slavery and the history of his Sunday School class for slaves and free blacks in Lexington, Virginia.  Williams is included as a talking head along with historians James I. Robertson and Col. Keith Gibson of VMI.   As a broad overview of Jackson’s life from cradle to grave the documentary succeeds.  I was very impressed with the footage of Jackson’s childhood stomping grounds as well as the discussion of the difficulties he faced throughout his early years owing to the death of his parents.  While I don’t claim to understand Jackson I find him to be an incredibly sympathetic character and the documentary does a very good job of imparting the sadness of his early years.  I also enjoyed the segments on Jackson’s private life, including the grief surrounding the loss of his first wife and unborn child and subsequent marriage to Mary Anna Jackson.   Overall the documentary is visually stunning and I commend the production staff for the pace of the narrative as well as the choice of visual materials.

Unfortunately, the narrative attempts to cover too much given its running time of 50 minutes.  While the video succeeds in terms of broad coverage when it comes to more specific subjects it is less than satisfying.  The fundamental flaw is the lack of any attempt at providing context for Jackson’s life.  Jackson is an island unto himself regardless of whether the focus is on his religious outlook or racial views.  For example, in the context of his belief that slaves ought to be taught to read there is no discussion of how this assumption fits into Presbyterian doctrine or any broader religious context that might help the viewer better understand why Jackson believed this.  Was this unusual in Lexington and in Rockbridge County?  Instead we are treated to a confused explanation suggesting that while Jackson believed slavery to be wrong he believed God was responsible for it and was not justified in interfering; however, he did believe himself to be justified in improving the condition of slaves within the Lexington community. Need I point out the contradiction here?  The producers perhaps would have had better luck if they had dispensed with the broad overview and instead focused specifically on Jackson’s relationship with his slaves as well as his racial views. More importantly, there is no discussion of how Jackson’s attitudes compared with other slave owners in Rockbridge County or the Shenandoah Valley.  Perhaps they could have interviewed historian Fitzhugh Brundage who is the author of one of the finest studies of slavery in the county.

The problem emerges again when briefly discussing Jackson’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army and align himself with Virginia and the Confederacy.  The talking heads make a conscious effort to remove any and all references to slavery when discussing Jackson’s decision here.  Interestingly enough, a similarly narrow approach is typically taken when addressing Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army.  According to Robertson, Jackson was “not fighting to preserve slavery.”  He goes on to suggest that “there is no way he could fight to do that….I don’t think he was willing to do something so evil.”  I’m not sure that a slave owner would have thought of that as “evil.”  According to Robertson, Jackson was “fighting for his home state of Virginia” and a “way of life.”  I guess we are supposed to forget that this way of life revolved around the ownership of slaves and the maintenance of a social and political hierarchy based on race.  More to the point, such a statement ignores the wealth of new research which demonstrates the centrality of slavery to better understanding the alignment of white southerners during the secession period.  The failure to provide a more sophisticated analysis of crucial aspects of Jackson’s life will no doubt lead some to characterize this documentary as a study in hagiography.

Unfortunately, the narrative loses all historical integrity when discussing Jackson’s relationship with his servant-slave Jim Lewis.  Richard Williams admits that the “records are sketchy” and then goes on to suggest Lewis “was very loyal to Jackson” and that “they had a great relationship.”  The evidence cited is indeed “sketchy” at best and includes the story of Lewis silencing men in camp so as to allow Jackson to pray in peace.  There is no tangible evidence cited to suggest much of anything in terms of Jackson’s relationship with Lewis nor his slaves and free blacks back home who attended his Sunday School.  To do so in a convincing way would involve citing contemporary evidence from those black individuals who interacted with Jackson.  Of course, this is very difficult for anyone familiar with the historical record.  What exactly are we saying when referencing concepts of loyalty and friendship in describing the master-slave relationship?  The viewer is left to her own devices assuming one is inclined to ask questions.

The story closes with reflections by the talking heads on Jackson’s significance along with footage of the Broad Run Baptist Church which includes a beautiful stained glass window in memory of Jackson and paid for by one of his former Sunday School students.  Once again the viewer is left to guess as to the significance of this act.  This documentary is best understood as a celebration of Jackson’s life which is no doubt what those who purchase it will be looking for.  That said, the celebration of  Jackson’s life contained in Still Standing comes at the expense of any serious attempt to come to terms with what was, by any standards, an engrossing and historically significant life.

A Thorough but Perhaps Outdated Project

Review Cross-Posted at H-Net

Marie Ellen Kelsey. _Ulysses S. Grant: A Bibliography_. Bibliographies of the Presidents of the United States Series. Westport and London: Praeger, 2005. xxix + 463 pp. Index. $119.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-313-28176-9.

Reviewed for H-CivWar by Kevin M. Levin, Department of History, St. Anne’s–Belfield School, Charlottesville, Virginia

This new reference work on Ulysses S. Grant by Marie Ellen Kelsey is the latest volume in the Bibliographies of the Presidents of the United States series published by Praeger. Like other volumes in the series, this one includes an exhaustive list of primary and secondary sources related to Grant’s personal, military, and political life.  The result is 4,242 items that span 402 pages.  As a tool for researchers this bibliography is indispensable.  While it is impossible to confirm whether Kelsey has compiled as complete a list as possible of references up to 2005, it nevertheless offers any researcher a detailed survey of archival materials as well as secondary sources that cover a broad spectrum of subjects. Kelsey provides a short overview of Grant’s life as well as a time-line for easy reference.  The majority of chapters are organized chronologically, beginning with Grant’s early military career and extending through the Civil War, his two terms as president, and his post-presidential years.  These chapters are flanked on both sides by sections covering manuscript and other primary sources as well as biographies, historiographical materials, iconography, and historic sites related to Grant’s life.

There is very little to criticize in this volume.  One marvels at the amount of time and energy it must have taken to complete such a project.  The problem with such projects, however, is that they often become outdated shortly after publication.  This is particularly true in the case of much-studied presidents.  Over the last twenty-five years, historiography concerning Grant’s life has burgeoned, beginning with the publication of William McFeely’s _Grant_ in 1981 and continuing through to more recent studies by Brooks Simpson, Jean E. Smith, and Geoffrey Perret, among others.[1]  A basic search of "Ulysses S. Grant on Amazon.com yields 1,387 titles published after 2005, and this does not include sources beyond books and videos.[2]  And there is little indication that interest is declining.

While Kelsey cannot be blamed for failing to include references published after 2005, in an age of collaborative websites (wikis) this kind of project is destined to become obsolete.  Collaborative websites that enable a large community of users to create, edit, and search vast amounts of information have the potential to bring the benefits of a bibliographical project such as the one currently under review to a much wider audience at little or no cost.  Given its price tag of $119.00, it is impossible to imagine that Kelsey’s bibliography will find a home beyond the colleges and universities that can afford to purchase such an item.  In addition, wiki technology has the benefit of being searchable beyond the confines of chapter subheadings and indices and can be continually updated.  More importantly, the range of sources included can be expanded well beyond published studies on Grant specifically to include various sources that reference Grant in some capacity.  The possibilities are endless.

Notes

[1]. William S. McFeely, _Grant_ (New York: Norton, 1981); Brooks D, Simpson, _Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865_ (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000); Jean E. Smith, _Grant_ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001); Geoffrey Perret, _Ulysses S. Grant, Soldier and President_ (New York: Random House, 1997).

[2]. This number does not account for various reprints.

Is This Republic Suffering?

No doubt there are a few of you out there who are making your way through Drew G. Faust’s new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008).  I picked up a copy yesterday and am about half-way through the first chapter, which doesn’t say much more than what was included in her Journal of Southern History article of a few years ago.  I tend to stay away from reviews if I am reading the book in question, but in this case I was curious as to whether the timing of the book’s publication would be connected to the ongoing war in Iraq.  Fortunately, I was not disappointed and located a number of references, including this one by Jon Wiener which appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

All history is contemporary history. Faust began writing this book more
than 10 years ago, but its publication now, in the midst of another
war, gives it a special meaning. Without being explicit about it, the
book reminds us what we’re doing when we tell war stories centered on
heroism and noble sacrifice, when we overlook the fact that wars are,
above all, about death
. Despite the excessive carnage, the Civil War
did have a worthy goal, and a similar purpose is touted by our current
leaders: bringing freedom and democracy to an oppressed people. But it
seems that all we have brought the Iraqis is a new republic of
suffering.

It’s no surprise to me that Faust – as a good historian – was not explicit about a possible connection to current events, but I am skeptical as to whether the book offers any lessons/insights regarding how we should go about coming to terms with our own war dead.  I say this because as a nation we have been so disconnected from the realities of the Iraq War.  In contrast to the Civil War most of us can safely ignore the death and suffering that has been visited on so many families, both here and in Iraq.  The Bush Administration worked tirelessly from the beginning to shield the population from the realities of war which it accomplished by “embedding” newspaper reporters into various units and preventing photographs of the coffins of dead servicemen and women.  It’s hard to believe that there was ever a debate about coffins.  Rather than reflect on the sacrifice made by our military George Bush encouraged Americans to go shopping.  And finally there is the entertainment factory that is our mainstream media, which has had so little to say about the war in recent months.  For whatever reason the major media outlets kept the realities of war from entering our living rooms at night.

The significance of Faust’s book should not be understood in terms of its relevancy to our current situation, but should serve to remind us of just how disconnected we have become to the sights and emotional pain of war.  The number of men mobilized on both sides, the rate of death and injury, the destruction wrought by battles and campaigns, and innovations in photography forced the nation and its leaders to deal directly with death on the grandest of scales.  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is infused with imagery and references to the dead and it proved to be effective because his audience understood on the deepest of levels.  George Bush has struggled to convince many of his sincerity when referencing the dead and wounded, not because he is necessarily insincere or his speech writers have failed to string together the right combination of words, but because the message falls flat on ears that can’t quite place the references.  Perhaps we were too busy shopping.

Faust’s book details the ways in which the scale of death both challenged earlier assumptions about the “Good Death” as well as how it fueled the various debates that defined the Civil War period.  Americans contemplated political questions the meaning of the war through the lens of suffering.  The impact of war continued to shape the way Americans thought about its meaning long after the guns fell silent.  John Neff has recently argued that the path to reunion was not an easy one as the dead on both sides defined the terms and the pace at which parties on both sides were able to reconcile.  It is absolutely essential for societies to come to terms with its dead and wounded as it brings the human cost of war and the reasons for it into the sharpest focus.

There is plenty of time to go shopping.

Soldier Self-Identification

One of the most popular stories from our Civil War is that of Union soldiers stitching their names to their uniforms before Cold Harbor in June 1864, in case their bodies need to be identified following the battle.  Ken Burns narrates this incident along with an image of Union soldiers apparently doing just that.  Gordon Rhea, however, recently challenged this story in his study of the battle.  If I remember correctly, his argument boils down to the fact that there is only one postwar source that cannot be corroborated. 

I’ve been making my way through the recently published notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman and came across a very interesting passage about a similar incident.  On Monday, November 30, 1863 Lyman wrote the following:

We were bright up & early, for it was necessary to get the trains out of the way about sunrise, as they would be exposed to shell, when the cannonade opened.  All was expectation.  Yet such is the force of your surroundings that I felt no particular nervousness–to be sure I did not have to lead an assault–which makes a wide difference.  The soldiers of the 2nd Corps, that morning pinned bits of paper on their clothes, with their names on them!  As for Col. Farnum (he of yacht Wanderer fame) he said he considered himself under sentence of death, that morning for an hour! (74)

I was of no use!  We came back; the moment had passed, the assault was countermanded and the 2nd Corps might unpin their bits of paper. (75)

I was wondering if there are other examples of men pinning their names to their uniforms before battle.