Last night I heard some rumblings on Facebook and Harry Smeltzer’s blog that the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times includes an editorial on Civil War blogging by Gary Gallagher. With my curiosity piqued and the issue not yet in stores I decided to secure a copy of the editorial from the author himself. I should point out that Gary and I lived up the street from one another in Charlottesville and had plenty of time to talk about all things Civil War. He was always very honest about his view of the blogging world, as well as my interest in the black Confederate myth, and I was always straightforward about why I thought he was wrong. Nothing that I say here would make me feel uncomfortable sharing with Gary over a beer. As for the column itself, it may ruffle a few feathers, but it is relatively harmless.
I understand that the Internet and social media sites can be an empowering place. It also has a powerful democratizing effect, which I value. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s voice ought to be given equal weight. Though it should be utilized with discretion, sometimes the most appropriate response is the back of the hand. Here is a case where this applies.
This is for those of you who are convinced that the scholarship around the antebellum period, slavery, and secession is fundamentally misguided. My response to you: I DON’T CARE! That may seem a bit dismissive, but that is exactly what I mean to say. I am not interested in what you learned from reading the Dixie Outfitters website, The South Was Right or one of your other Pelican Press books. I am also not interested in your assumptions about what motivates academic historians. Your theories about how some vaguely defined political agenda influences research is of no interest to me.
I’ve read a pretty large chunk of the scholarly literature on slavery and secession and one thing that has been established over the past few decades is that the South’s “peculiar institution” is central to understanding secession and the Civil War. The post photo includes just a small number of relevant books from my personal library. It’s not meant to make you feel insecure, but to give you a sense of how I approach the study of history. My understanding of this subject comes from reading these books, most of them written by professional historians. I spend a great deal of time reading books and journals, not because I’ve become seduced by the academic world, but because these books constitute my education in this area of history. You are going to have to do better if you hope to convince me that the broad interpretation that emerges from these studies is fundamentally flawed.
If critical scholarship is not your cup of tea, so be it. Just please don’t expect me to take you seriously or imagine that I have any interest in your personal beliefs about Civil War history. We are simply on different pages. We have divergent ideas of what it means to engage in the study of history. In the end it’s not a big deal. You are free to discuss your personal beliefs on your own webpage or Facebook site or wherever you can find like-minded people.
I just finished The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom by Glenn David Brasher. It’s a must read for anyone interested in military history, the process of emancipation, and especially the controversy surrounding black Confederate soldiers. In regard to this last area of interest it is just the kind of study we need. Brasher takes seriously the evidence pointing to black participation in Confederate ranks and he offers what I believe are very reasonable interpretations of how they were used and why they constituted such an important part of the Confederate war effort. It is a solid study. My hope is to write a formal review some time next week for the Atlantic, but for now let me make one quick point.
As important as this book is to the public debate surrounding BC, it is unlikely to have much impact at all. People don’t read books. If they want information they go to the Internet. It comes down to the fact that print sources play almost no role in this controversy. This is not meant as an argument against traditional monographs, but it is intended as a call for more of us to find ways to engage a much wider audience through a digital format, especially when the subject matters.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if Joy Masoff clicked on a link to a site that contained the quality of analysis and information contained in this book rather than a Sons of Confederate Veterans site that led her to claim that an entire battalion of black soldiers fought with Stonewall Jackson.
Thanks to everyone who left a comment in response to my last post on David Blight. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to Barbara Gannon’s comment, which I believe gets at something central to Blight’s overall approach to Civil War memory:
Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work. [my emphasis]
The topic of biography comes up at the very beginning of John Neff’s interview with Blight, which I think is key to any response to Barbara’s comment. Blight’s entry into Civil War memory comes before Race and Reunion (2001) in his collection of essays, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989). Douglass clearly sits at the center of how Blight sees memory unfolding during the postwar decades and its implications for African Americans. It is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that Blight has adopted Douglass’s own view of the moral and political implications of memory as his own, which he believes is important for the rest of us to reflect upon. This is the sense of ‘useful’ that I believe Barbara is getting at.
Barbara’s new book shows that GAR chapters were largely integrated and that African Americans managed to achieve positions of authority while John Neff argues that the Union dead and Lincoln’s assassination rendered reconciliation shallow and problematic. Both books, as well as others, challenge central claims made by Bight in Race and Reunion, but both books tackle narrower topics. We are still left with the brutal fact of Jim Crow and a world that Douglass saw crumbling around him by the end of his life. There is the question of how representative Douglass was to the African American community during the postwar period, but it seems to me his life is useful for reflecting on the connection between historical memory and political power and the larger historical shifts that took place, which tend to be where people find a deep sense of meaning.
In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative. The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject. On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern. How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation? Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century. My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.
On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book. Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge. And yet the argument has held up quite well. That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.
To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author. The guy gets around. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings. Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical. Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.
The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most. And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.