New to the Civil War Memory Library, 11/19

Civil War WestsThree of the books below reflect my recent interest in the West during the Civil War era, which I know next to nothing about other than having read Ari Kelman’s brilliant book about the Sand Creek Massacre. I am currently working on a little project that involves an almost complete run of the Second Colorado Cavalry’s camp newspaper published in 1864 and 1865. What I find interesting is the way in which the Civil War and growing concerns on the frontier with Native Americans begin to overlap by the end of the war. I will share more about this project in the coming weeks as it begins to come together. Thanks to my fellow Book Squad members, Megan Kate Nelson and Heather Cox Richardson, for the suggestions.

Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (University of California Press, 2015).

Leornard L. Richards, Who Freed the Slaves?: The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (Anchor, 2007).

Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers, eds., Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (University Press of Kansas, 1998).

Do We Need Another Biography of Custer?

My latest essay at The Daily Beast is a review of T.J. Stiles’s new book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed his other two biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In all three biographies Stiles explores the challenges each individual faced adjusting to some of the most dramatic changes that took place in this country during the mid-nineteenth century. I am not sure that this framework helps to explain Custer as opposed to his previous two subjects, but it is a solid effort. Books about Custer is a cottage industry and I have no doubt that some historians will nitpick a few oversights, but I didn’t see anything that threatens Stiles’s overall interpretation. It’s a fast read and well worth your time.

This is my third essay at The Daily Beast. I really enjoyed the exposure I gained writing for the Atlantic, but editorial changes have made it more difficult to publish. The editors have welcomed all of my suggestions thus far and two more essays are planned, one on the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as a review of PBS’s new series, “Mercy Street.” I hope at some point soon to expand my focus beyond the Civil War. One of the nice things about writing for TDB is that I don’t have to deal with comments that quickly spiral off the deep end, not to mention the fact that writing for TDB is a paying gig. :-)

A Quick Word About Historiography and Popular History

I am charging through T.J. Stiles’s new biography of George Armstrong Custer, which I agreed to review for The Daily Beast. I’ve read his previous biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt and enjoyed both immensely. It’s always challenging to read a popular Civil War title and those of us immersed in the field know why. We can’t help but judge the author’s grasp of historiography. It’s already happening with Stile’s Custer biography.

I’ve heard from a number of people who are frustrated by the author’s interpretation of George McClellan. Stiles relies very heavily on Stephen Sears’s book on the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam and his biography of McClellan. He also utilizes Richard Slotkin’s recent book on Antietam, which received very mixed reviews. To be fair, Stiles’s grasp of the relevant literature is broader if you take the time to peruse the endnotes, but his understanding of McClellan is certainly weighed down by Sears and Slotkin. Continue reading “A Quick Word About Historiography and Popular History”

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 11/03

Stiles CusterDavid T. Dixon, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey (B-List History, 2015).

Mark Dunkelman, Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General, and Gilded Age Politician (Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle, A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity (Basic, 2015).

Noeleen McIlvenna, The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown, 2015).

T.J. Stiles, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Knopf, 2015).

Zoe Trodd and John Stauffer, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (Liveright, 2015).

The Ghosts of Civil War Memory

Tales From the Haunted SouthI am just about finished reading Tiya Miles’s new book, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, published by UNC Press. Miles explores the current craze and popularity of ghost stories at historic sites, specifically those involving slaves in places like Savannah and New Orleans. Here is a short passage that beautifully captures the central theme of the book:

In crafting and hearing stories of haunting, we conjure up and simultaneously contain the collective memories that threaten us. Ghost stories index disturbing historical happenings that have often been excluded from conscious social memory, but they also limit the full recognition of those very happenings. Because modern culture dismisses the possibility of ghosts (even while many people hold personal faith in the reality of haunting), ghost stories are taken lightly, in jest, and are viewed as primitive or playful. Revelations of historical import embedded in ghost stories are therefore dismissed as unreal. Ghost stories as a form of historical narrative therefore do double work: they call to mind disturbing historical knowledge that we feel compelled to face, but they also contain the threat of that knowledge by marking it as unbelievable. This process of pushing back and calling forth a memory might be described as “unsuccessful repression” in psychoanalytical literary and cultural studies. Literature scholar Renee Bergland explains the understanding of hauntings as repression in this way: “The entire dynamic of ghosts and hauntings, as we understand it today, is a dynamic of unsuccessful repression.  Ghosts are things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried. They are our fears and our horrors, disembodied, but made inescapable by their very bodilessness.” Just as hauntings are about the return of the past, or time “out of joint,” ghost stories are a controlled cultural medium for recognizing trouble in that past, for acknowledging the complexities and injustices of history that haunt the periphery of public life and leave a lingering imprint on social relations. (pp. 15-16)

At first I had trouble understanding why Miles is interested in ghosts, but having recently read her previous book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, it occurred to me that there is a great deal of overlap between ghost stories about slavery at historical sites and the challenges that public historians face in interpreting this history for the general public. The book is well worth your time and is a quick read.