Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Do You Trust Those Lost Causers?

Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865

I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs.  While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.

The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that  Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors.  “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.

It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact.  This is just another straw man argument.  That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences.  That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well.  I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.

In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful.  In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries.  That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.

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The World of Civil War Blogging Just Took a Giant Leap Forward

Union Veterans on Parade

At one point during my visit to Professor Blight’s Civil War Memory seminar at Yale I looked over at Brian Jordan and suggested that he should start a blog.  The next day I logged on for the first time to his new weblog, Grand Army Blog.  Now, I am not going to take full credit for this as it is likely that Brian had been playing around with this idea for quite some time.

So, why am I so excited about Brian’s blog?  First and foremost, Brian is a rising star in the field.  He has already published one book on South Mountain and historical memory as well as a number of journal articles.  I first met Brian last year at North Carolina State University, where the two of us served on a panel on public history and memory.  He is also an incredibly nice guy, but this is not why I am excited about Brian’s blog.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of young scholars who are discouraged from embracing the world of social media, including blogging.  I suspect that this can be explained, in part, by a certain level of anxiety from those individuals who feel alienated and left behind.  Others have expressed legitimate concerns about the value of such endeavors in an academic culture that continues to struggle assigning objective value for purposes of hiring and promotion. Thankfully, this attitude is beginning to change.

As far as I know, Brian’s is the first blog written by a current graduate student with a focus in Civil War history.  His dissertation is tentatively titled When Billy Came Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War and will address a number of questions related to the challenges that veterans faced in keeping the nation focused on their sacrifice and accomplishments.  Brian’s research has the potential to reach a very broad audience.  We are likely to get an insider’s account as Brian explores and analyzes archival collections, relevant secondary sources, and the more abstract considerations that come with conceptual analysis.  We need more of this.

If he keeps at it, Brian is likely to find that what at first glance appears to be a rather narrow/academic project will resonate among a very broad audience.  His readers will not only be introduced to new primary and secondary sources, but new questions and methods for interrogating the past.  Brian’s published work will be read and debated by academics and history enthusiasts alike.  Most importantly, a vibrant blog site that reaches out and welcomes readers from diverse backgrounds will transform what it means to educate.  I wish Brian all the best with his new digital project and I hope it encourages other young scholars in the field to matter more.

A Progressive Attempts to Understand Robert E. Lee

I am about half-way through and thoroughly enjoying Keith D. Dickson’s new book, Sustaining Southern Identity: Douglas Southall Freeman and Memory in the Modern South (Louisiana State University Press, 2012).  It’s not a conventional biography of Freeman; rather, the book explores the influence of the Lost Cause and his father’s military service in Confederate ranks on Freeman’s view of history as well as how his own scholarship (“Memory Framework”) worked to bridge the divide between the antebellum world of his father and the New South.

What I am finding most interesting about Freeman is his close identification and involvement with the southern progressive movement in Richmond.  My only complaint about Dickson’s analysis of progressivism and its emphasis on taxation reform, public education, and public health is that he traces it back to Reconstruction rather than the Readjuster Movement of the 1880s.  In the wake of the Readjuster Movement, Democrats learned to co-opt as much of their political platform that would bring about the necessary reforms without upsetting the region’s delicate racial hierarchy.

Freeman’s writings helped to unite white Virginians around shared stories and values rooted in the past even as they embraced new political and social policies that deviated from those of their predecessors.  While I’ve read Freeman’s biography of Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants, I never connected him with anything having to do with the progressive movement, which I suspect has to do with my observation that those who most closely identify with him today lean to the conservative side.  The book has definitely helped me to better understand how Freeman applied his professional training in history at Johns Hopkins University to the broader goal of anchoring his community’s modern tendencies in a shared past.

So, how is it that a progressive like Freeman was able to write what many conservatives today believe to be the most accurate and unbiased interpretation of Lee?  :-)

Robert K. Krick Defends Lee From Strawmen

I think it’s time for Robert K. Krick to get a new angle.  How much longer do we have to be subjected to vague references of an “anti-Lee” cabal among academic historians?  In 2007 I was asked to respond to a presentation he gave as part of the University of Virginia’s commemoration of “Lee at 200.”  In it Krick accused academic historians of intentionally distorting the history of Lee through an embrace of psycho-history and an over reliance on interpretation.  It appears that when it comes to Lee: No Interpretation Necessary.  If you want to know what Lee believed, just read his own words.  It appears little has changed in five years.

This past weekend Krick took part in the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Signature Conference at the Virginia Military Institute.  It sounds like it was a huge success, which I am glad to hear.  Krick used the opportunity to once again go after his fellow historians.  This time, however, he accused them of ignoring Confederate postwar accounts as tainted with Lost Cause mythology.  As one example he cited the following:

One “inane strain” of that criticism, he said, holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t really so popular among his troops and Southern citizens at the time.  Nonsense, Krick said.  He offered a maxim about the writing of history that he called Hamlin’s Razor (a riff on Occam’s Razor): “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or sloth.”

Can someone please name one historian who has recently made such a claim?  This is nothing more than a strawman argument.  The article does not mention whether Krick had anyone specific in mind and I suspect that he failed to do so.  And I don’t know one historian who brushes off postwar accounts as unreliable.  What a silly thing to say.  The only example Krick could muster was a recent story out of Ohio in which a teacher reprimanded a student for including Confederate sources.  Krick wrote to the teacher and we can only hope that this is the end of the story, but it tells us nothing particularly interesting about how historians treat postwar Confederate sources.

Enough already.

Civil War 150: Mobilizing For War

The latest issue of the Magazine of History will be mailed to subscribers in the coming day and it’s a good one.  This is the second in a series of Civil War themed issues that will be published throughout the Civil War 150th.  This issue focuses specifically on the mobilization of war and includes essays by Joseph Glatthaar, Thavolia Glymph, Louis Masur, and Joan Cashin.  Carol Sheriff served as the guest editor and did a great job of pulling everything together.  I greatly appreciate the invitation to contribute an essay to this issue.

My essay, “Teaching Civil War Mobilization With Film,” offers teachers strategies for introducing this subject through such movies as Gone With the Wind, Shenandoah, and Glory.  I also focus a bit on the importance of treating these films as cultural artifacts that must be interpreted as reflections of the time in which they were produced.  All too often students passively observe films and arrive at the mistaken belief that what they are seeing is history.

A few of us put together a panel based on our essays for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, which meets in a few weeks in Milwaukee.  Stop by and check it out.

Almost forgot one thing.  If you teach American history, you should subscribe to this magazine.  It’s an incredible resource.