Category Archives: Civil War Historians

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.

Remembering George Tindall

Some of you may be aware that historian George Tindall died last month at age 85.  Tindall spent his career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The Raleigh News & Observer recently included an article that included a few comments by Cliopatria founder Ralph Luker:

Tindall was regarded, along with the late C. Vann Woodward (a UNC-CH graduate) and John Hope Franklin of Duke University, as part of the holy trinity of 20th-century Southern historians.  “He, Franklin and Vann Woodward were the sources of a renaissance of Southern history that we are still benefiting from,” said Ralph Luker, a retired historian living in Atlanta.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Tindall, Woodward and Franklin took Southern history out of the magnolia-scented Lost Cause legends of the Civil War and administered the smelling salts of reality.  “All three insisted that Southern history had to be written in black and white,” [Ralph] Luker said. “Prior to their generation, Southern history had been written as a history of white people. That produced such a badly skewed and romantic vision of the South that we can look back on it with amusement and sadness.”

Tindall, a native of Greenville, S.C., taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 32 years before retiring in 1990. He was an elegant gentleman with a bow tie and a wry sense of humor who would sometimes ride his bicycle to class. The historians trained by Tindall are now the pillars of distinguished history departments across the South.  In his personal life, Tindall was ahead of his time. In the 1950s he made sure that dinners were held in hotels where white and black historians could eat together, and he sent his children to the first integrated day-care center in Chapel Hill.

His books are living legacies. His most famous, “The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945,” is an 807-page masterpiece published in 1967. It will likely remain the authoritative history of an era that saw the South pull itself out of rural poverty and wrestle with the great questions of race.

I have to admit that while I have a copy of The Emergence of the New South I’ve never actually read more than a few short sections.  A few days ago a post of mine which referenced a short essay by Mark Grimsley on recent interpretations of Sherman’s March led to a spirited discussion with a reader.  The reader’s comments implied that these revisions were authored by Northern historians who fail to sympathize with the suffering, destruction, rape, and pillage that Sherman’s hordes brought to Georgia.   Today Mark was kind enough to weigh in on the discussion by noting that he is a white southerner from North Carolina.  George Tindall grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and both the late C. Vann Woodward and Ed Ayers grew up in the South.  I could go on and on.

The important point to remember is that those most responsible for challenging the Lost Cause stories of the Civil War and the “Old South” are a product of the South.

The Crooked Road To Civil War

I am currently making my way through Nelson Lankford’s new book Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road To Civil War, 1861.  The book is essentially a micro-study of the days following Fort Sumter.  In some ways the book can be seen as a companion volume to his previous book Richmond Burning, which took a similar look at the final days of the Confederate capital.  [Click here for my H-Net review of this book.]  The first few chapters set the stage for the incident for Fort Sumter with chapters 6 through 17 focusing on the period between April 12 – 25.  For those of you already familiar with this period there is very little that is new.  What is impressive, however, is the extent to which Lankford is able to integrate recent scholarship on the secession winter and the Upper South by Daniel Crofts, William Freehling, Charles Dew, and William Link.  And he manages to do this within a narrative that is beautifully written.  There is nothing worse than reading books geared to the general public that are written by people who have no sense of the relevant historiography.  It makes for poor history and all too often it reinforces long-standing assumptions that can no longer be justified.  Yes, it turns out that good history is revisionist in the sense that we continually add to our understanding and in turn hopefully understand better.

Like his earlier study, Lankford relies heavily on contingency.  He places his reader in a narrative space where they can appreciate the role that perception played in the continually changing political shifts and subtle misperceptions in Virginia in the days leading up to and following Sumter.  In doing so Lankford reminds us that Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and even the establishment of the new Confederate government in February 1861 did not necessarily lead to war.   

This is the story of the unfolding of those events as Americans experienced them, not knowing the outcome any more than we can know the outcome of events in our own day before they happen.  Long-running discord over slavery and sectional rights prepared the way.  That antipathy long predated Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and all the other actors of 1861.  Perhaps by then the war could not have been avoided.  But the particular way that it began was in the hands of individuals, not impersonal, irresistible historical forces. (p. 7)

Lankford actually takes this one step further as he argues that even the bombardment at Sumter did not necessarily have to end in war:

"And the war came."  So Lincoln would famously reflect in his second inaugural address, tersely eliding complexities of cause and motive.  But that cryptic remark four years later conflated events terribly.  In April 1861, no one could see where the furious cannonade woud lead.  For several tumultuous weeks, in fact, many Americans still hoped and worked to avert a full-scale civil war.  For all the hostility, noise, and anger released in Charleston Harbor, the shape of the prospective disunion of the country, like Edmund Ruffin’s fate, still lay hidden in the unknowable future. (p. 83)

Lankford’s language clearly echoes recent work by Ed Ayers based on his Valley of the Shadow project. I highly recommend this book.  Even for those of you who are familiar with this time period I am confident that you will enjoy it.   

Mark Grimsley on Myth, Memory, and Sherman’s March

I was doing a bit of snooping around on the internet looking for information on memory and Sherman’s March when I came across a short essay by fellow blogger and historian Mark Grimsley.  It is a nice concise overview of the campaign and how our popular perceptions of Sherman and his men have evolved.

"Thieves, Murderers, and Trespassers": The Mythology of Sherman’s March

Internal or External: A False Dichotomy?

I am making my way through the essays in James McPherson’s latest offering This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007).  All in all I have to say that I am just a bit disappointed with this collection.  Many of the essays fail to deliver a stronger analytical punch.  Part of the problem is that most of the chapters are reprinted from other publications that I am already familiar with.  A couple of chapters were originally published in the New York Review of Books.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with reworking material; Gordon Wood’s most recent collection is a also pulled from his articles in the NYRB.  The difference, however, is that Wood apparently spent more time expanding the reviews into fairly sophisticated essays.  There are a few chapters, including one on the Lost Cause and textbooks that are well worth the time to read.  For someone unfamiliar with these chapters the book will no doubt make for interesting reading. 

One of the chapters that originally appeared as a book review in the NYRB examines recent studies that explore questions surrounding Confederate defeat.  The books in question include, William Freehling’s The South v. The South, William C. Davis’s Look Away! and Gary W. Gallagher’s The Confederate War.  McPherson reviews these books and along the way offers  commentary about the historiography of Confederate defeat.  Most interpretations that purport to explain why the North won or why the Confederacy lost can be grouped within the so-called internal and external camps.  Explanations that fall into the former tend to reference internal conditions such as economic deficiencies or political bickering (David Donald’s thesis that states rights killed the Confederacy)  as the reasons why the Confederacy lost.  Shelby Foote brought this point home when he noted in the Ken Burns documentary that the "North fought that war with one hand behind its back."  External explanations, on the other hand, concentrate on the ebb and flow of the military campaigns as a sufficient reason for Northern victory or Confederate.   On this view the Confederacy succumbed to military defeat rather than specific internal problems. 

There is some value in distinguishing between internal and external explanations of Confederate defeat or Union victory.  The historiography of internal explanations is fairly rich and includes Richard Beringer, et. al. Why The South Lost The Civil War and Charles Ramsdell’s Behind the Lines in the Confederacy.  Historians who subscribe to this view must explain away the fact that the North experienced just as much – perhaps even more – internal political strife.  And implicit in the explanation is the assumption that we can know what is a sufficient level of internal conflict to explain defeat.  In arguing for internal conflict these historians conclude that white southerners never experienced a vibrant or sufficient level of nationalism (whatever that means).  McPherson notes another difficulty relating to sources which he notes in his comments re: Davis’s Look Away!:

It is the nature of newspaper editorials, private correspondence, congressional debates, partisan speeches, and the like to emphasize conflict, criticism, argument, complaint.  It is the squeaky wheel that squeaks.  The historian needs to step back and gain some perspective on these sources, to recognize that the well-greased wheel that turns smoothly also turns quietly, leaving less evidence of its existence for the historian.

If I understand McPherson he is basically saying that if you look for conflict and criticism in the political realm you are going to find it.  From here it is a short step to Foote’s conclusion that Confederate defeat was inevitable.  Regardless of the problems with the explanation it is undoubtedly the cased that these historians have uncovered important information about the Confederate experience. 

External accounts have made their mark more recently.  Gallagher’s Confederate War is a great place to start in looking at why the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.  Notice that the way the question is framed matters.  This was one of the first books that I ever read about the Civil War and it has shaped to a great extent the way I interpret the Confederate experience.  I wasn’t convinced at first by the argument and this had much to do with the way I read Gallagher’s book.  My biggest problem early on had to do with the fact that I was looking for an argument that somehow indicated that  Confederates had achieved in generating sufficient nationalism.  Indeed Gallagher talks a great deal about Confederate nationalism in the army and on the home front, but he does not get stuck in the question of whether the Confederacy "created a nation."  Rather he argues that Confederates identified in various ways which allowed them to continue the fight for close to five years and even come close to victory on more than one occasion.  I now tend to see that book more as a call to arms: Gallagher is basically saying that historians have tended to explain the Confederate experience by looking at why their experiment in revolution failed.  The question itself steers the historian in the direction of looking at what they fell short of achieving; in doing so they have ignored the myriad ways in which Confederates identified with their "nation."  It’s no accident that some of the best studies of Confederate nationalism have been written by Gallagher’s students.

This brings me to my major concern surrounding this distinction between internal and external accounts.  Simply put, I think the distinction has outlived its usefulness.  Although I can’t prove it I suspect that the attraction of the internal account as it appeared in earlier histories such as Why The South Lost The Civil War is that it allowed the historian to utilize the new social history without having to come to terms with the military aspects of the war.  This is where that vacuum affect comes into play.

Freehling’s study does not make this mistake.  While he admires Gallagher’s sketch of "selected Southerners’ pro-Confederate passions" Freehling argues that white southerners in the Upper South who served in large numbers in Federal armies and the slave population constituted a significant problem for Confederate authorities.  Freehling does not confine his analysis to the Confederate states, but broadens it to include all southern slave states.  In doing so he is able to show that between southern unionists and the slave population roughly half the population stood against the Confederate war effort.  I hesitate to call this an internal explanation – even though Freehling argues that both populations and the pressure they placed on the Confederate war effort proved to be decisive – because he spends as much time discussing the ways in which Union military operations along the Mississippi River exploited these apparent weaknesses.  There was nothing inevitable about Confederate defeat unless Union military authorities and the president took proper action.  [Freehling would probably disagree with this last point.] 

It seems to me that we can have our cake and eat it too.  The best recent military histories that fully integrate analysis of the political, economic, and social aspects of the Confederacy have the best chance of answering the big questions of why the war turned out the way it did.  We need to know how Union military policy changed over time in response to conditions on the ground.  Certain internal conditions may rise to the top depending on how they connect to the military sphere.  It is clear, however, that we are beyond examining interal conditions in a vacuum, which is where some studies fall short.   Our ability to unwind different forms of nationalism from complex local internal conditions is indispensable to understanding why military operations evolved from limited to hard war – to use Mark Grimsley’s language.  [I would also recommend Buck T. Foster's Sherman's Mississippi Campaign as another example of this approach.] 

I think we sometimes get wrapped up too tightly in certain distinctions.  I’ve tried to suggest that the distinction between internal and external explanations of the Civil War no longer carve up the historical terrain at its joints.  It is often noted that the Civil War created a situation where battlefield tactics failed to keep up with the technology.  Perhaps here we have a situation where recent historical interpretations have oustripped our ability to describe them accurately.