Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Jonathan Yardley’s Picks For Best Books Of 2006

Jonathan Yardley has one of the coolest jobs around.  He gets paid to read good books and right about them.  Here are his picks for best books of 2006 and I am pleased to see both Jonathan Skokol’s study of the Civil Rights Movement and Joan Cashin’s biography of Varina Davis, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend.  From Yardley’s review:

Three of the works of nonfiction that make my personal list of the year’s
best books, and one of the works of fiction, initially came to my attention
because of a lifelong interest in race relations in the United States generally
and in Southern history more specifically. These are matters about which I make
no claims to virtue or moral purity, but they have been foremost in my mind ever
since, as a boy of 9, I moved with my family from the Northeast to Southside
Virginia. The sight of black convicts working in chain gangs by the roadside
unnerved me, and so did the experience of being waited upon by black women who
were older than my mother.

That was in the summer of 1948, a time when the South was poised at the
threshold of momentous and, for many, traumatic change. The system of
segregation and oppression seemed as immutable as the obligatory statue of a
Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse. Blacks lived in what whites
called "their place," and whites assumed they were both happy in it and
uninterested in rising above it.

The next quarter-century proved just how wrong those assumptions were. How
the white South responded to the civil rights movement is the subject of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil
Rights, 1945-1975
, by Jason Sokol, a young scholar who has done
exhaustive research in primary sources and who has shown how difficult it is to
generalize about white Southerners in that time of astonishing social, political
and cultural upheaval. He gives all due attention to those who reacted bitterly,
noisily and sometimes violently to black protest, but he also shows how some
whites were embarrassed by these troublemakers and sought other ways to deal
with change. Without ever losing sight of the indisputable justice and necessity
of the civil rights movement, Sokol manages to understand those who were caught
on the sidelines yet found their lives irreversibly altered.

The history of complex Southern feelings about the subjugated blacks in their
midst is as long as the history of slavery and segregation. New evidence of this
is brought to light by Joan E. Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. Her
title is somewhat misleading, as this biography of Jefferson Davis’s wife
encompasses far more than the four years of the war, but it does underscore the
point that Varina Howell Davis was involved in internal as well as external
struggles. She doesn’t seem to have questioned slavery more than occasionally
and half-heartedly, but she believed that secession was foolish and the war
unwinnable for the Confederacy. She supported her husband unflinchingly, as was
expected of wives in that time, but she disagreed with him frequently and
apparently wasn’t afraid to tell him so.

I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from both book, but if you choose one read Skokol.  I will be very surprised if this book does not win a few awards.  One quick word about biographies.  This past week two fellow Civil War bloggers addressed a question about the merits of Ed Longacre’s work.  The concern was in regard to whether the frequency of his published work threatens its overall quality.  Apart from a review I did of one of Longacres’s cavalry studies for the journal Civil War History I am not familiar with his more recent biographies so I can’t comment.  I will say, however, that I tend to stay away from historians who pump out books at a high rate, especially in the area of biography.  You can easily distinguish between those biographies that are the result of a careful reading of both the primary and relevant secondary sources.  More importantly, you can easily pick out the studies whose authors spent the necessary time thinking about their subject and trying to generate the right questions to ask.  When I pick up a biography I want to read a preface that reflects both a careful research and writing process and that involves interaction with fellow historians.  In short, I want to read a story of how the historian came to know his/her subject and this takes time.  A perfect example is the 2-volume biography of W.E.B. Dubois by David L. Lewis that I am trying to get through.

Perhaps I could have simply said that I am not a fan of production-line history.

Assessing Ken Burns

In response to yesterday’s post on Ken Burns and the Crater a reader chimed in with a very negative assessment of The Civil War.  I’ve made regular references to Burns’s documentary throughout the life of this blog, including references to its usefulness in the classroom (and here) and as a point of contrast between popular perceptions and the more critical stance of academic historians.

I have to say that I find Burns to be quite valuable on a number of levels.  Yes, I agree that there are plenty of problems with his interpretation, but there is much to admire and value.  [For a thorough critique of the documentary see Brent Toplin's edited collection of essays titled, Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond.] I agree with much of what is contained in those critiques, but keep in mind that historians will always find something to analyze as falling short of the mark. In addition to factual problems, Burns spends most of his time in the Eastern Theatre, Shelby Foote tells too many goofy stories and makes some other outrageous comments, and the last section on Appomattox and reunion is way off the mark.  Still, by including historian Barbara Fields viewers are exposed to the"bottom-up" perspective of emancipation rather than the overly simplistic "great emancipator" story.  Burns does capture the horror of the battlefield and ways in which the battlefield, politics, and the home front intersect.  I could go on.

What I admire about Burns is that he never ignored the criticisms of historians; in fact, he deals with them head-on in the Toplin collection and he does so by carefully laying out the goals of a filmmaker in contrast with a more traditional historical study.  Burns was engaged and even passionate about the material that he was attempting to get across to a broad audience back in 1989.  Let’s face it, Burns’s documentary is probably the most influential interpretation in the last 25 years.  I know we would like to give the nod to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but I suspect that the majority of people who own the book have actually never read it or they haven’t read most of it.  I don’t mind admitting that I never read through the whole thing straight through until a graduate seminar a few years back.  It’s a dynamite book, but compared to Burns it’s boring as hell. 

The View From The Ground Now Available In Bookstores

Although the book is not slated for release until December I was able to pick up a copy yesterday in my local bookstore.  The full title is The View From The Ground: Experiences Of Civil War Soldiers and is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean with an afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.  The publisher is the University of Kentucky Press and the book is part of a new series called New Directions In Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, William Link, and Michelle Gillespie.  I have to say that it’s nice to see one of my essays in book form and in a collection that includes some very talented historians.  Here is the Table of Contents:

1. The Blue and the Gray in Black and White: Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
2. A “Vexed Question”: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race by Chandra Manning
3. A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy by Jason Phillips
4. “The Army Is Not Near So Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front” by Lisa Laskin
5. “‘No Nearer Heaven Now but Rather Farther Off”: The Religious Compromises and Conflicts of Northern Soldiers by David W. Rolfs
6. “Strangers in a Strange Land”: Christian Soldiers in the Early Months of the Civil War by Kent T. Dollar
7. ‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear”: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement by Timothy J. Orr
8. Popular Sovereignty in the Confederate Army: The Case of Colonel John Marshall and the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment by Charles E. Brooks
9. “Is Not the Glory Enough to Give Us All a Share?”: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the Battle of the Crater by Kevin M. Levin
10. Afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.

I will be joining Dollar, Phillips, Manning, Brooks, and Sheehan-Dean for a roundtable discussion at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2007 in Atlanta.  The session is titled, Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and will focus on different methodological approaches to researching our subjects.  The session is scheduled for Saturday, January 6 from 2:30-4:30pm in the Hilton Hotel’s Monroe Room.

In the meantime pick up a copy of The View From The Ground; it will make a great stocking stuffer.

Plagiarism And Peer Review: A Response To Savas And Rotov

In his most recent post Dimitri Rotov shares some thoughts by publisher Ted Savas on the recent plagiarism scandal involving Fred Ruhlman and the University of Tennessee Press.

According to Savas:

As for plagiarism: I see it all the time in manuscripts, so what Carmichael is talking about I can’t say. I can often spot it in casual reading. Maybe I have a good radar for that. Goodwin got off; Ruhlman won’t. I have confronted several authors over the past couple of years regarding a wide variety of submissions. Some apologize (falling back on the Goodwin/Ruhlman non-defense defense), others never respond, and a few are so clueless they ask what plagiarism means!

It’s not clear to me at all what Savas means when he says that he sees it [plagiarism] all the time.  The more interesting question is what we are to do with an observation from a publisher who deals mainly with non-academic titles.  This is not meant in any way as an insult since I think that Savas provides an excellent service for those Civil War enthusiasts that are interested in well written and thoroughly researched campaign and battle studies as well as for those who wish to write them.  My point is that Savas’s comment should perhaps be considered in the context of who is submitting manuscripts for consideration at his shop compared with who is submitting to academic presses.

Dimitri goes on to comment on peer review and cites a question that I posed in my original post on the Ruhlman case:

Kevin Levin had asked why University of Tennesse Press did not send the Ruhlman MS to Andersonville author Marvel for comment. I have two problems with that. First, it makes new writing hostage to old reputations (more on this in a minute). Second, if you don’t have the in-house expertise to evaluate a manuscript like this yourself, yours is a house of generalists susceptible not only to plagiarism but trash.

I am not going to pretend to understand the peer review process that goes on within academic presses.  That said, I have had extensive experience with academic journals and my guess is that the process is similar and rightfully so.  Now I know that Dimitri looks at Civil War publishing as a collection of little cabals which are somehow steered by sinister minds such as James McPherson and Gary Gallagher.  I’ve submitted numerous manuscripts to journals – most of which have been rejected – and those that have made it through the first round have all been sent to experts in the field.  All of them have come back with comments that attest to the expertise of the reviewer involved.  There may indeed be an element of a gate-keeper mindset, but that isn’t necessarily troubling.  In fact, it may be just what the system needs.  Remember, most academic presses and journals send their manuscripts out to at least three reviewers which means that the kind of mentality that Dimitri is so concerned about will have little chance to do any damage.

Dimitri also cites an interview between former North and South magazine editor Keith Poulter and Civil War Talk Radio host and historian Gerry Prokopowicz:

If you agree with the idea of shopping new manuscripts to the established experts, I urge you to listen to Gerald Prokopowicz
interview Keith Poulter, former editor of “North & South” magazine. Poulter, like any editor, rejected a lot of work. However, there was a category of work the content of which he was not sure about. Was it revisionism? He describes a system by which he would send such submissions to subject matter experts. Gerald astutely asked how many of these got through this expert screening process. Poulter answered none. That would be zero among (IIRC) 40 such.

Now is this supposed to support Dimitri’s earlier claim that peer review renders new ideas beholden to old reputations?  All that comes out of this exchange for this reader is that N&S magazine has a pretty good peer review system in place.  Hell, I’ve had a couple of manuscripts rejected by them, and with every rejection I received some helpful feedback.

Perhaps it would help if the questions being asked or criticisms being leveled stemmed from some first-hand experience with the process itself.

John H. Franklin Wins Kluge Prize

From the American Historical Association’s Website:

John Hope Franklin, emeritus professor of history at Duke University and past president of the AHA, has won the prestigious John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. He shares the honor with Yu Ying-shih, emeritus Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University, who will receives the other half of the $1 million prize.

This is the third time the Kluge prize has been awarded by the Library of Congress to recognize the achievements of scholars in the fields of history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics (all of which are fields that don’t receive Nobel prizes). Franklin and Yu will be presented their awards on December 5, 2006 at the Library of Congress.

John Hope Franklin is perhaps best known for his efforts to include the African-American experience into the study of American History. His publications include The Free Negro in North Carolina, From Slavery to Freedom, and The Emancipation Proclamation to name a few. In 2005 he published his autobiography Mirror to America. Besides his work in academia (which spans 70 years), Franklin was an active participant in the civil rights movement, has been an expert witness, and worked with President Bill Clinton’s administration.