Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Placing A Stone On A Grave

I am currently reading through Mark H. Dunkelman’s new book, War’s Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers (LSU Press, 2006).  In many ways this is a companion volume to his fine regimental study, Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment (LSU Press, 2004) which focused on the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry.  Dunkelman’s regimental history is one of the best examples of what we can be done when the right questions are asked; the author examines both the political and social dynamics of the unit as well as the way it functioned as an extension of the home front.  Even better, Dunkelman extends his history of the unit into the postwar years.  As I mentioned in my post the other day, unfortunately, this aspect is often overlooked in unit histories.  While the rigors of battle and camp life were no longer functioning as the glue that tied the men together the veterans remained active in organizations, reunions, reenactments, and crafting their preferred history of their service in the army.

Dunkelman’s most recent study is difficult to categorize.  The book includes 12 sketches of men who served in the 154th New York.  The particular individuals were chosen based on the uniqueness of their story.  As the men served in the same unit they shared a broad range of experiences; however, Dunkelman manages to locate stories which remind us that each soldier experienced the war in their own way.  One of the most interesting stories involves Private Milton H. Bush who managed to find a substitute only to discover in 1864 that his name had never been taken off the muster rolls.  Bush was forced to join the army in 1864 and while his paper work requesting a discharge based on the obvious mistake that had been made was working its way through the military’s bureaucracy his unit was ordered to Georgia.  While fighting in Georgia Bush was stricken with a bowel disorder and was sent to Nashville for convalescing where he died.  The paperwork that granted Bush his discharge came through two months after his death.

To be honest I was a little wary of this book.  It does not have the analytical rigor of his regimental study, which is somewhat surprising for an academic press book.  It will be interesting to see if reviewers harp on that alone.  I say that because if they do dwell on that alone they would have missed something that I am still trying to put my finger on.  Books on the common soldier are nothing new and the number and sophistication continues to increase with each passing year.  That said, there is something attractive about a stripped down study of average soldiers without the analytical framework.  Each chapter begins with a trip to a cemetery which the author narrates.  At first I found it to be distracting but then I was reminded of a common practice in the Jewish tradition, which involves placing a stone on the grave being visited.  It is both a sign of respect and a sign that someone was present.  In a way Dunkelman’s book functions along similar lines.  Each soldier’s name serves as the chapter title and no more than 25 pages are set aside for each individual.  And when you get down to it they probably don’t deserve much more.  However, that is not really the point, what matters is that they are acknowledged.  In the end the individuals emerge for just a short time and while they make an impression they soon fade away.

Report From The AHA

As promised here is my report from this years AHA meeting in Atlanta.  This is my second time attending the AHA and probably my last unless asked to participate in another panel.   [You can read a detailed overview of the AHA over at History News Network, including the arrest of historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto for jaywalking between hotels.] I am not a big fan of academic conferences, but it does give me a chance to interact with some very talented people, see friends, and make new contacts.  As a high school teacher I don’t often get the opportunity to converse with people who share similar research interests.  My wife and I set out on Thursday at around 6:30am on what turned out to be a 9-hour drive.  I guess we could have taken a 1-hour flight, but driving gives you the option of eating the artery-clogging food of Cracker Barrel every 24.5 miles.  If the conventional car ever became too boring we could have stopped off at one of the 10 Harley-Davidson superstores along Rt. 85.  Can you picture us arriving at the Hilton with me on a Harley and my wife in one of those side carriages?

I attended some very interesting panels on a range of issues.  On Friday I listened to papers on African-American celebrations of Emancipation Day and Juneteenth.  One of the papers analyzed the 1936 Texas Centennial Fair and its inclusion of a “Hall of Negro History,” which I didn’t know anything about.  Other panels looked at railroads in the nineteenth century and another focused on digital history projects.  The latter was a roundtable-style discussion which left plenty of time for questions.  We discussed questions about how digital history projects function as historical interpretations and how they should be assessed as such.  The roundtable format is far more preferable to the standard 2 to 3 paper panel.  It is simply too difficult to maintain the level of focus necessary to follow even a fairly sophisticated arguments – not to mention that the sessions normally run for 2 hours.

The best part of the conference is the exhibition hall which includes just about every academic publisher.  You can purchase soon-to-be-released books and other titles at discounted prices.  I picked up a number of titles from LSU, Oxford, and University of Virginia Press.  It was nice to see that the University of Kentucky Press stand had copies of The View From The Ground and I was even more pleased to learn that the book is actually selling.  At this point I can announce that  Kentucky Press is evaluating my Crater manuscript for possible inclusion in their New Directions In Southern History Series.  The manuscript was mailed today and I should get the reviews at some point in March/April – at least that’s what the editor tells me.  There is no guarantee that they will accept it for publication, but there is the possibility that if everything goes relatively smooth there will be books available about this time next year.  The exhibition hall is where a lot of the action takes place.  Representatives are available to discuss book projects and shop ideas.  I had a chance to talk with a representative from the academic press that is likely to publish my edited project on John C. Winsmith.  The room is truly overwhelming and for someone who loves to look at quality books there is no better place than the AHA to do your shopping.  It’s actually overwhelming.

As I mentioned above one of the nice things about conferences is that it gives you a chance to catch up with friends.  Here is a photograph of me (on the left) with my friend Tom Ward.  Tom and I taught together at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science and now teaches American history at Rockhurst University.  He is the author of Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South, which was published in 2003 by the University of Arkansas Press.  The book is well written and focuses on the steps taken by black Americans to become doctors and the difficulties they faced in a Jim Crow society.  I also met some new friends, specifically a few of the bloggers over at Cliopatria.  We met for lunch on Friday afternoon and Ralph Luker (founder of Cliopatria) was kind enough to pick up the tab.  It was nice having the opportunity to put a face on some of my favorite bloggers, including Rob MacDougall, Rebecca Goetz, Jonathan Dresner, and Tim Burke.  To my surprise we talked very little about blogging.  It was a great lunch and the conversation was entertaining.

I attended a very lively panel on Saturday morning which was supposed to include Howard Zinn; however, he was not able to attend due to health reasons.  The session was sponsored by Historians Against the War and focused on Staunghton Lynd’s experiences as a radical historian teaching at Yale University in the 1960′s.  Though Zinn was not in attendance Jesse Lemisch presented an entertaining paper that took a number of pop shots against Bush and the Yale culture.  While it was entertaining it was not the most informative session.  The whole atmosphere had a very different feel to it.  It was as if a sub-culture of the AHA had converged into one room.

I spent the early part of the afternoon making some final changes to my short talk.  The session went very well.  We had a nice turnout and the roundtable format proved to be the best route.  There were six of us total and each of us took five minutes to talk about our work as it relates to researching Civil War soldiers.  It was a real pleasure taking part in a panel that included such distinguished and talented scholars.  [The photograph to the left is of the panel and includes from left to right: Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Jason Phillips, Chandra Manning, Charles Brooks, Kent Dollar and me.] We identified somewhere between eight and ten possible dissertation topics that could be written.  One thing is crystal clear to me and that is that there is no crisis in Civil War studies.  Some of the most talented people are working in the field and even with all we’ve learned in the last few decades it is safe to conclude that it will continue.  Keep an eye out for Aaron’s study of the Confederate family in Virginia with UNC Press.  Jason Philips is revising a study on Confederate defeat with Univ. of Georgia Press; check out his recent article “The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence” in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Southern History.  Chandra Manning’s study of Civil War soldiers is set for release from Knopf in March.  I had a chance to browse the page proofs and it looks to be a first-rate study.  Charles is hard at work on a study that looks at Civil War soldiers in connection with Constitutionalism, and Kent recently published Soldiers of the Cross: Confederate Christians and the Impact of War of War on Their Faith with Mercer University Press.  Following the talk I had a chance to talk with Lesley Gordon who had some nice things to say about my comments.  I commented that unit histories are ideal places to explore conflict amongst veterans during the postwar period since most of the men tended to live in the same places.  Unfortunately most unit histories are written by people who have little interest in these questions.  In my talk I discussed the political debates between veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade during the Readjuster period.  Lesley is currently completing a study of the 16th Connecticut and will incude an entire chapter on their postwar experiences.  I look forward to her study which will be published by UNC Press.

All in all I had a great time at the conference.  This year I am scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable in February, Rappahannock Valley CWRT in March, and the Richmond CWRT in July.

Ervin Jordan Reviews Robinson’s Bitter Fruits of Bondage

Last week I chose Armstead Robinson’s posthumously published Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 as the best Confederate study of 2006.  Check out Ervin Jordan’s very thoughtful and insightful review of the book over at H-Net.  The two were friends and colleagues here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia.  Jordan is an archivist at UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections and specializes in the Civil War.

Armstead Louis Robinson (1947-1995) was a colleague, friend, and mentor; we discussed our respective books-in-progress on many occasions. As the
University of Virginia special collections’ research archivist and Civil War specialist, I am currently processing his papers (70,000 items) which include several groups of _Bitter Fruits of Bondage_ manuscripts and research material; these are not yet available to the public but once they are, his dedication to the historian’s craft will be deservedly appreciated. As a teacher, Black Studies advocate, Civil War historian, and founding director of the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, Robinson was widely respected among his peers. One monograph of African-American intellectuals included him among a pantheon of nearly two hundred exceptional minds including W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, and Cornel West. Colleagues familiar with Robinson’s academic career as a student and teacher maintain he was a genius born to be a historian; as a history undergraduate his maturating skills were acknowledged by mentors such as Eugene Genovese who quoted Robinson’s unpublished honors thesis in his peerless _Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made_ (1974).

Read more.

Sensing The Past

There is a very interesting post over at Boston 1775 on recent studies of the colonial experience and Revolution that focus on how people sensed their environments.  It’s a relatively new trend that although raises some interesting epistemological questions offers a unique perspective on some important historical questions.  I thought it might be useful to mention Mark M. Smith whose work is relevant to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and nineteenth-century America generally.  He is the author of three book, including Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South and Listening to Nineteenth-Century America.  His most recent book is titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  I’ve read the last two.  Here is the description from Listening:

Smith explores how northerners and southerners perceived the sounds associated
with antebellum developments including the market revolution, industrialization,
westward expansion, and abolitionism. In northern modernization, southern
slaveholders heard the noise of the mob, the din of industrialism, and threats
to what they considered their quiet, orderly way of life; in southern slavery,
northern abolitionists and capitalists heard the screams of enslaved labor, the
silence of oppression, and signals of premodernity that threatened their vision
of the American future. Sectional consciousness was profoundly influenced by the
sounds people attributed to their regions. And as sectionalism hardened into
fierce antagonism, it propelled the nation toward its most earsplitting
conflict, the Civil War.

As to the challenges that historians face in utilizing the sensory world to understand change and other analytical issues Bell briefly quotes from a review by John Demos which appeared in the London Review of Books:

One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a
matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of
measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so
on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty
lurking beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the
senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of
individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through
further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and
(for lack of a better term) emotional charging. . . .

Demos may be right regarding his assessment of the sensory in arguing that it only provides context rather than any insight into causation, but this may have more to do with the limits of our ability to interpret the past than the physical/psychological truth about how we interact with our environment and process sensory data.  I assume this is what he means by suggesting that we need a way to "measure" the sensory with the political, etc.   

Demos’s second point – if I understand him correctly – is that the sensory cannot in and of itself lead to action.  This is the old Enlightenment view that draws a sharp distinction between the external world and the processing that takes place in the brain once that information is received through the senses.  Demos seems to believe that only with some kind of "cognitive assessment" will the sensory be shaped in such a way that it brings about some kind of action/behavior or report.  The problem is in trying to pin down what Demos means by cognitive assessment; more than likely he means something along the lines of rational thought or decision making.  There is an obvious weakness in this view: if we pay careful attention to our daily routines we notice that most of the time we are not consciously assessing our environment.  Most of the processing – for lack of a better word – is automatic.  Now you could argue that some type of processing is still necessary; however, it may look nothing like Demos’s "cognitive assessment."  I still think that Demos’s point can be applied to our epistemological limits in assessing historical action.  While the sensory may indeed have causal properties we are not able to translate them into a causal explanation.

Year In Review: 2006

It’s time for my second annual best-of list for 2006.  These are always tough calls so take them with a grain of salt.  Obviously I could go on and on but this list hits on a few of the books that kept me out of trouble in 2006.    [Note: these books were not necessarily published in the past year.]

Best Blog: This is one of the easiest choices and it goes to Tim Greenman’s Walking the Berkshires.  Tim describes his site as an “eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and conservation science with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities.”  The site is entertaining and educational.  Thanks Tim!

Favorite History Book of 2006: Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Best Overall Civil War Military History: Steven E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 (Knopf, 2005). 

Best Biography:  Joan Cashin, First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2006).   

Best Confederate Study: Armstead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (University of Virginia Press, 2005) 

Best Union Study: Jennifer Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Best Slavery Study: David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Best Memory Study: James and Lois Horton eds, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (The New Press, 2006). 

Best Edited Collection: Gary W. Gallagher, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). 

Best Social History: Jonathan Dean Sarris, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (University of Virginia Press, 2006). 

Best Myth Buster: Roger L. Ransom, The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been (Norton, 2005). 

Best Gettysburg Book: Kent M. Brown, Retreat From Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Some good things to look forward to in the new year are studies by William Freehling, Chandra Manning, and Nelson Lankford.  Congratulations to the winners.  Awards are in the mail.