Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Civil War Narratives: Is There A Problem?

I read with great interest Dimitri’s response to a fellow blogger’s query about his recent comments about James McPherson, Doris K. Goodwin and the supposed perils of writing narrative history.  Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s entertaining and insightful blog knows that he is a voracious and careful reader of Civil War history.  As I understand it Dimitri’s concern about narrative history is its tendency on the part of authors to mislead readers by including historical assumptions that most people do not know to question or are not equipped to challenge.  That is clearly not his problem:

The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to
flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith [author of the biography Grant],
the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow – with pleasure. But
as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize
each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I
become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?

What Dimitri must mean by claiming to be a "deep reader" is his willingness to push through more demanding analytical studies where historical assumptions are explicit  rather than the implicitness of assumptions in the traditional narrative.  And once that happens it becomes difficult if not impossible to go back to the narrative approach within that particular area of interest.  I can relate to this view of things, but my problem is that even in areas that I am unfamiliar with I tend to look for the assumptions that are driving the narrative; that, however does not take away from the pleasure of reading it as I find the art of writing to be my main focus rather than simply the analytical framework underneath. 

Still, I find it difficult to explain the almost "pathological" obsession Dimitri has with James McPherson’s Battle Cry.  It clearly is for him the paradigm example of a bad narrative:

But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had
already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries.
It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction
was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of
which is a standing invitation to immaturity.

For the life of me I can’t imagine what would be problematic if the only book someone read about the Civil War was McPherson’s Battle Cry.  There are two problems with this view.  First, the book was supposed to bring together scholarship from the past few decades; that was the idea behind the Oxford series.  The other problem is that Dimitri’s criticisms of the book never go beyond that narrow area of interest involving the war in the East and specifically George McClellan’s conduct of the war and his relationship with his other generals and Lincoln.  My guess is that if we could somehow revise Battle Cry by integrating scholarship by Thomas J. Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joseph L. Harsh he would be just fine. 

What is even more disappointing is that Dimitri does not draw the relevant distinctions between McPherson and Smith, both of whom have engaged in very different kinds of scholarship.  Smith falls into the camp of competent historian with a narrative flair.  Don’t expect the kind of analytical flair that you would get from Grant studies by Brooks Simpson, but enjoy the read.  The problem is that if you only read Dimitri’s posts you would have to arrive at the conclusion that both individuals have built their careers on broad/popular narratives.  In the case of McPherson this would be a serious mistake.  In fact, most of his publishing career has been spent writing the kind of analytical pieces that Dimitri seems to have a preference for and yet I’ve never read on his blog anything about this.    My guess is that most of McPherson’s academic colleagues could care less about Battle Cry or even his smaller study of Antietam. 

In the end McPherson did succeed in bringing a very readable and sophisticated study of mid-nineteenth century America to a large number of readers.  Parts of it are outdated and a recent edition includes a new afterword where McPherson suggests places in the story that are in need of revising. 

So, is there really a problem?

Books On The Table

I just finished Jonathan Sarris’s new book A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (University of Virginia Press, 2006).  At just under 200 pages the book offers an incredibly concise analytical comparison between Lumpkin and Fannin counties in northwest Georgia.  Sarris compares the evolution of these two counties in the decades before the Civil War and into the postwar years.  Along the way he challenges long-standing assumptions about the experience of war in the mountain south.  Sarris places a great deal of emphasis on the development of these two counties before the war as a determining factor on how residents viewed slavery, secession, nationalism, desertion, and defeat.  The evolution of the Lumpkin and Fannnin counties, along with ongoing local dynamics, provides the prism through which the war is interpreted.  If you’ve read G. Ward Hubbs’s Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003) you may want to read Sarris.  While Hubbs focuses more on the men in the ranks both studies illustrate how specific localities in the South were shaped by the demands and uncertainties of war.  I was particularly interested in the final chapter on memory.  Sarris explains why many continue to generalize about the mountain South as a bastion of unionism throughout the war.  Confederates and unionists competed with one another for control of how the war was to be remembered and this brought about some unusual bedfellows.  Most interesting was the decision of Confederate veterans to welcome Union veterans to their reunions rather than fellow residents who for one reason or another chose to remain loyal to the United States or joined their ranks by crossing into east Tennessee.  I highly recommend Sarris’s book as I learned a great deal.

I am currently reading Douglas L. Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (Knopf, 2006) who is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln which is in my mind the best recent study of the man.  Unlike Gabor Boritt’s recent study of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Wilson concentrates on how he wrote and developed his ideas.  In doing so we get a peek into the process by which Lincoln shaped his ideas.  Wilson begins with Lincoln’s farewell speech in Springfield and in subsequent chapters tackles the First Inaugural and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which I just finished.  With the flood of recent studies by Allen Guelzo, Gabor Boritt, Harold Holzer, and Ronald White I was worried that Wilson’s thunder would be drowned out.  Fortunately you will find that Wilson creates a nice niche for himself in sticking to how Lincoln utilized editorial advice and how he crafted his speeches.  Most recent studies comment on the precision of Lincoln’s thinking, but by taking the reader through various drafts Wilson is able to show the reader how he utilized language to achieve his political goals. 

Fred Barnes Reviews Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads

Executive editor of the Weekly Standard Fred Barnes recently reviewed Jennifer Weber’s new book Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.  He provides a very thorough overview of the history of the Copperheads and Weber’s argument.  As I was reading I was waiting for the analogies with Democratic opposition to the war in Iraq.  Barnes doesn’t disappoint as he makes the standard argument at the very end of his review.

Weber draws no analogy with Democrats today. She sticks to history. But I think the analogy is inescapable–not that Democrats are unpatriotic or treasonous. But like the Copperheads, antiwar Democrats have grown in numbers as victory in the war–in Iraq now–has faded from sight. They’ve weakened the president’s tools in combating terrorists and made that effort more difficult. And Democrats today have offered no real alternative, merely a seemingly irresistible impulse to retreat from Iraq.

Something similar was true with the Copperheads. "They never offered a coherent alternative to Lincoln’s plan–war–nor did they ever acknowledge the Confederates’ own resolve to gain independence," writes Weber. On that last point–the South’s rejoining the Union–talks with the South would have been worthless since Southern leaders were insistent on secession. So, too, I suspect, would be one-on-one talks (favored by Demo crats) with America’s enemies now, such as North Korea and Iran.

I have one quibble with Weber’s otherwise wonderful book. She labels the Copperheads "conservatives." But were they? They were soft on slavery. They were not patriotic. They fomented violent protests. They interpreted the Constitution in a way that would have crippled a wartime president. They hated the war more than they loved the Union.

Does that qualify them as conservative? I think not.

First, I have little patience with comparing Democrats with those who opposed Lincoln’s policies.  There is political opposition in every war and in a democracy it is absolutely necessary.  Barnes’s comments raises the question of under what conditions is opposition justified during wartime.  Was Lincoln’s own strong opposition ("Spot Resolutions") to American aggression against Mexico justified?  It seems to me that there has actually been very little "opposition" to the war among Democrats; there has been, however, a great deal of questions surrounding the president’s rationale for the war and especially the handling of the situation on the ground in Iraq.  If Barnes is being critical of Democrats he is certainly mild in tone, which I suspect has much to do with the fact that he acknowledges that the opposition to the war is justified.  As to the criticism that the Democrats have not offered a viable alternative to the president’s "policy", all I can say is that perhaps there is no alternative.  The incoming secretary of defense and Colin Powell have recently alluded to that possibility. 

Religion And The Civil War

First let me apologize for the continual change to this blog’s appearance.  For some reason I get bored with the look of it and find a need to explore other possibilities.  I’m sure I was an interior decorator in a past life.

The other day I posted some concerns about so-called Christian studies of the Civil War.  As many of you now know it led to an interesting dialog with a fellow blogger who challenged some of the assumptions that lay behind the post.  I wish the focus would have been more on the specific points made, but that was not to be.  Anyway, I thought I would offer a short reading list for those of you who are interested in historical studies that actually take religion seriously.

A great place to start is the edited collection by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles R. Wilson titled Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998) and Mark Noll’s short, but thorough The Civil War As A Theological Crisis (UNC Press, 2006).  Harry Stout’s Upon The Altar of The Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) gives the reader a chance to think about the war as a moral crisis brought about in part by conflicting theological assumptions.  I plan to use part of this book next year in my Civil War elective.  Though it is hard going the new book by Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, titled The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2006) provides the most thorough analysis of the role of religion among wealthy white Southerners.  Although I have not read it I’ve heard very good things about Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the South, 1810-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

On religion and Civil War soldiers there is no better place to start than Steven Woodworth’s While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (University of Kansas Press, 2003).  One of the best soldier diaries is Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2003.

There are numerous studies that I believe address the fundamental interpretive mistakes contained in many so-called Christian biographies/studies of the Civil War.  The best place to start is Charles R. Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1981).  Get through that and take a look at David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2004) and Daniel Stowell’s Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (Oxford University Press, 2005).  Finally there is Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2005).

This list doesn’t even constitute the tip of the iceberg.  Feel free to offer any additional suggestions.  I did not attempt to be inclusive; many of these studies offer broad interpretations of the Civil War and religion.  The titles in the last section should give you some  idea of why Americans continue to interpret Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as religious icons that almost appear to stand outside of history entirely.  Happy reading!

The Price Of Forgetting: New Biography of Albion Tourgee

One of the more disturbing consequences of our tendency to interpret the Civil War and the postwar period along the lines of reunion and reconciliation and void of any references to emancipation is our failure to give credit to those who continued to push for civil rights. Even Frederick Douglass tends to be forgotten by the end of the Civil War though he continued to remind the nation of the service and sacrifice of black Americans in the Civil War until his death in 1895.  Rather than waste time and ponder counterfactuals about Gettysburg I often find myself wondering what our national memory might have looked like had we decided to highlight the work of those who concerned themselves with civil rights issues rather than stories that concentrated on the mythology of the "Old South", silly tales of Christian Warriors and narratives that watered down military service to a set of innocent virtues that all Americans could identify with.  Perhaps we would be able to see the modern Civil Rights Movement more as a continuation of steps taken earlier rather than as a reaction to conditions following the Second World War.  Better yet, perhaps the Civil Rights Movement would not have been necessary at all.  Some of the most exciting historical scholarship is now focused on uncovering the lives of Americans who worked tirelessly in the postwar period on issues related to race.  Historian Mark Elliott’s Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest For Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford University Press, 2006) tells the story of one of the most important civil rights advocate, lawyer, and author of the latter part of the nineteenth century.  From the book description:

Civil War officer, Reconstruction "carpetbagger," best-selling novelist, and relentless champion of equal rights, Albion Tourgee battled his entire life for racial justice. Now, in this engaging biography, Mark Elliott offers an insightful portrait of a fearless lawyer, jurist, and writer, who fought for equality long after most Americans had abandoned the ideals of Reconstruction.

Elliott provides a fascinating account of Tourgee’s life, from his childhood in the Western Reserve region of Ohio (then a hotbed of abolitionism), to his years as a North Carolina judge during Reconstruction, to his memorable role as lead plaintiff’s counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson . Tourgee’s brief coined the phrase that justice should be "color-blind," and his career was one long campaign to made good on that belief. A redoubtable lawyer and an accomplished jurist, Tourgee wrote fifteen political novels, eight books of historical and social criticism, and several hundred newspaper and magazine articles that all told represent a mountain of dissent against the prevailing tide of racial oppression.

Through the lens of Tourgee’s life, Elliott illuminates the war of ideas about race that raged through the United States in the nineteenth century, from the heated debate over slavery before the Civil War, through the conflict over aid to freedmen during Reconstruction, to the backlash toward the end of the century, when Tourgee saw his country retreat from the goals of equality and freedom and utterly repudiate the work of Reconstruction. A poignant and inspiring study in courage and conviction, Color Blind Justice offers us an unforgettable portrayal of Albion Tourgee and the principles to which he dedicated his life.

I just picked up a copy and look forward to reading it over the winter break.