An Evening With David Blight and the Memory of John Washington

Mark your calendars for Saturday, November 17.  On that day the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will be hosting a special event featuring historian David W. Blight who will be discussing his new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.  Blight’s book includes two recently uncovered emancipation narratives one of which is by John Washington who lived in Fredericksburg.  I’ve already read both accounts and they are absolutely fascinating.  Blight’s introduction places these narratives within a broader historical context which helps to explain the genre and the time and place in which they were written.

Park historian John Hennessy was kind enough to ask me to join a special tour of John Washington’s world, including a trip into the living quarters where he spent much of his life and the site on the Rappahannock where Washington went across on April 18, 1862.  The tour will include Blight as well as a few of Washington’s descendants who have only recently been contacted and were not aware of the existence of this narrative.  Blight’s work on memory has been very important for my own research so it will be a real treat to finally meet him in person. 

John Hennessy should be applauded for his hard work in organizing events such as this.  I can think of no one who has done more to further the education of visitors to our Civil War battlefields.  John has already made use of Washington’s narrative in a recent park film on civilian life in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania County area.  Click here for his assessment as well as my review of the project.  I am really looking forward to this.

Back Home

Conferences_024I am back home and relaxing after three days in Richmond for the SHA.  While I am not a big fan of academic conferences I can honestly say that I had a wonderful time in Richmond.  The SHA is a relatively small conference, which makes it much more of a relaxing experience.  There is more time to catch up with friends and do a little social networking.  The Society for Civil War Historians annual banquet dinner and panel on Thursday was a blast.  The panel featured John Coski, A. Wilson Greene, and Alex Wise and their focus was on the challenges of public history in the Richmond area.  John’s talk was the most engaging as he examined the difficulties now facing the Museum of the Confederacy.  Next year’s meeting will take place in New Orleans.  I will be speaking at the dinner banquet along with Mark Grimsley and Anne Sarah Rubin, and the panel will address issues related to the Civil War in cyberspace.  This is the first time since Hurricane Katrina that the SHA will return to the city.

After the banquet a bunch of us made our way to a bar where we spent the next few hours.  I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with a few of my friends who left just a bit too early.  You will be happy to know, however that it was a small group of bloggers that closed the place down.  I had a great time chatting with Mark Grimsley, Rebecca Goetz (Historianess – a.k.a. Pepper’s Mom) and Ralph Luker (Cliopatria).  All three remind me that not all academics are boring intellectuals; conversations with such people truly make the conference experience worthwhile.  I also met fellow bloggers Andrew Duppstadt (Civil War Navy) and Chris Graham (Whig Hill).  Finally, I had a nice talk with Dana Shoaf, editor of Civil War Times Illustrated, and I agreed to write a few articles that pull material out of my current research projects –a real nice guy. 

I did take in two sessions.  The first examined Unionism in the South.  Victoria Bynum’s and Barton Myers’s papers were quite good.  Congratulations to Barton who is finishing up his dissertation at the University of Georgia, but just signed a book deal with LSU to have his M.A. thesis published–that’s right, his M.A. thesis!  This morning I went to an excellent session on postwar tourism in the South and  the Lost Cause, which is a topic that I am exploring in my Crater manuscript.

Conferences_023Last night I drove over to the University of Richmond for a party for former graduate students and Freeman Professors.  [The picture at the top is with my M.A. thesis advisor Robert Kenzer and the one to the left includes J(left to right) John Deal (Library of Virginia and editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography and Jason Phillips, author of the new book DieHard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2007)].  It was great to be able to catch up with classmates and former professors including Daniel Sutherland. 

The city of Richmond itself is one big construction site.  It will be very interesting to see what comes of all this work in a few years.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take too many photos.  I did get up early Friday morning to take a few photos of Capitol Square.

Off To the SHA

Today I am off to Richmond for the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time.  Tonight I will attend the banquet dinner for the Society of Civil War Historians and tomorrow I will take in a full day of panels.  Tomorrow evening I will spend a few hours at a the University of Richmond for a reunion of former graduate students and Freeman Professors.  While I am not the biggest fan of academic conferences I do enjoy having the opportunity to catch up with old friends and now fellow bloggers.  The best part, of course, is the exhibition hall which includes just about every publisher of American history–and yes, great discounts.  I am bringing my laptop; if the hotel has wifi you can anticipate a few updates and even some photos. 

William W. Bergen on “Lee at 200”

Thanks to Bill Bergen for allowing me to share this talk which he will present tonight at the final session of the University of Virginia’s seminar on Robert E. Lee.  Bill is Assistant Dean for Administrative Services for the University of Virginia’s Law School.  Bergen has lectured widely and has served as an instructor at several of the University’s annual Civil War Conferences. He is the author of “The Other Hero of Cedar Creek: The ‘Not Specially Ambitious’ Horatio G. Wright,” a biographical essay appearing in Gary W. Gallagher’s ed. The 1864 Shenandoah Campaign published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2006.

The Robert E. Lee of legend is perfect, imperturbable, stoic. But one can glimpse the restlessness of the man from a close reading of Lee’s private letters. Take, for example, his strange penchant for counting socks.

More than a dozen of Lee’s letters to Mary Custis Lee during the first five months of 1864 contain references to the homemade socks she had sent. Among the comments the General wrote back to the home front were “There were 67 pairs . . . instead of 64 as you supposed.” “the number of pairs scarcely ever agrees with your statement;” “There were only 23 pairs & not 25 as you stated. I opened the bag & counted them myself twice.” As Lee’s biographer Emory Thomas put it, “Confronted with massive problems, most of which he could not solve, Lee tended to refocus his attention simpler matters over which he did have some influence.” I don’t know about you, but I have had bosses like that; not for nothing did Lee’s staff call him “the tycoon” behind his back.

This seminar has examined Lee from several perspectives, and the overall effect has been to paint a more human portrait. Tonight’s topic is whether Lee matters in today’s world, and my task is to focus on the relevance of Lee the soldier. The answer to the question is easy: Lee is highly relevant. As Gen. John F.C. Fuller, one of Lee’s early and most distinguished military critics conceded, “few generals have been able to animate an army as [Lee’s] self-sacrificing idealism animated the Army of Northern Virginia . . . What this bootless, ragged, half-starved army accomplished is one of the miracles of history.” Lee was the indispensable man, and surely the Civil War would neither endured so long or been so bloody were it not for Lee’s military brilliance. Lee’s military accomplishments guarantee that the study of what he did, and how he did it, will remain germane to the profession of arms for generations to come.

One approach to studying Lee’s significance is to identify the skills that he demonstrated as a soldier, and determine the extent to which one might emulate them. Some of these skills are teachable, at least to a point. Lee learned much at West Point, both as a student and as superintendent in the 1850’s. Graduating second in his class, Lee, like all top graduates, was assigned to the engineers, and he had a major hand in designing forts along the east coast. There he employed the drawing and drafting skills he was taught at the Point. This experience and education combined to develop what became in warfare an uncanny eye for terrain. We can see some of Lee’s power of observation at work in his surviving sketches.

While superintendent, library records show Lee read French military histories and the campaigns of Napoleon, and engaged faculty members in discussion. He apparently consulted with his venerable engineering professor, Dennis Hart Mahan, about the importance of field fortifications in warfare. Those lessons would be put to use repeatedly during the Civil War as a means to help equal the odds against a numerically superior foe and to allow for a reserve that Lee could use to launch an attack. So Lee never stopped studying for a war he knew might never come. Contrast this approach to that of his subordinate, Richard Ewell, a West Pointer who once said that in the old army "I learned all about commanding fifty United States dragoons and forgot everything else.”

Continue reading “William W. Bergen on “Lee at 200””


Richard Williams offers a thoughtful response to my post of a few days ago in which I describe his reference to "Stonewall" Jackson as a "champion of enslaved men and women" as dangerous.  Williams response is based on a short book review that historian Peter Carmichael did on Elizabeth-Fox Genovese’s classic Within the Plantation Household (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) in the most recent issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.   Williams quotes Carmichael as evidence of his contention that the relationships forged between Jackson and his slaves qualifies as friendship. Here is the quote: No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”  He goes on to point out that Fox-Genovese also explores the complex chains of affection between slaveowners and their slaves.  Williams is absolutely correct on this point and I know this all too well because I read this book as a graduate student; not only did I read it, but I’ve read plenty of other articles and books by both Fox-Genovese and her husband Eugene Genovese.  I could be wrong since it has been some time, but I don’t remember seeing this book cited by Williams or any other recent analytical study of slavery in the bibliography of his Jackson book. 

By placing himself in the same camp as Fox-Genovese and Carmichael, Williams believes that by extension I must also believe that they too are dangerous.  Not at all.  In fact I agree with the assertion that slavery created a wide range of mutually affective relations or mutual closeness during the antebellum period.  To do so would be to ignore some of the most interesting literature to come out of this field over the past few decades.  One of the most important points that Eugene Genoves makes in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that slaves cultivated chains of affection because they understood that slaveowners could not help but acknowledge their humanity.  From this perspective such relationships can be understood as manipulated by the slaves themselves to help make a horrific situation bearable.  At one point William suggests that it is not unreasonable to equate mutual affection with friendship.  Perhaps, but I believe it to be very difficult in the context of the slave-master relationship because it seems to me that the concept of friendship implies freedom of choice and by definition that is absent.  This is a point that Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics with the other being that friendships are built over time around mutual interests.  That said, to a certain extent this is beside the point because my problem is with Williams’s claim that Jackson ought to be understood as a "champion of enslaved men and women." 

On this point I feel safe in assuming that Carmichael would disagree with Williams here.  In addition, I’ve never read anywhere in Fox-Genovese’s scholarship which implies anything along these lines.  Let me state again for the record that I am well aware of the scholarship that has outlined the ways in which the lives of slaves and slaveowners intersected and often resulted in close personal ties.  It would be surprising to me if it didn’t given the social dynamics involved.  I am exploring just such a relationship as I edit the letters of Captain John C. Winshmith of South Carolina.  The problem I have, and the reason I find the assertion of "champion" to be dangerous, if not perverse, is it involves what appears to be a celebration.