Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Is There An Official Civil War Memory?

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.

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 03/02

Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Thomas J. Brown, ed., Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

Guy Gugliotta, Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2012).

Harold Holzer, Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Brian Matthew Jordan, UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2012).

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Doubleday, 2011).  Loved it!

Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Glenn David Brasher Moves us Beyond Black Confederates

Given the frequency of posts on this site concerning the myth of the black Confederate soldier I wanted to point out the release of a new book that many of you will want to consult.  I’ve been looking forward to Glenn David Brasher’s book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, for some time and having completed two chapters I can now say it was worth the wait.  Brasher provides an overview of history on the Virginia peninsula and analyzes the ways both free and enslaved blacks influenced the strategic and tactical decisions of both armies during the spring campaign of 1862.  Brasher believes that the influence of African Americans on the Peninsula Campaign and its ultimate outcome is more important that Antietam in leading to leading to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The most important important analytical point that Brasher has made thus far is that there was nothing inevitable about black loyalty to either side during this period.  So much of the discussion surrounding black Confederates is about who can claim a moral victory for their respective side.  It’s nice to remove this issue from our own soiled hands and place it back in a more strictly defined historical context.  Many of the slaves who risked their lives by imposing themselves on Union forces at Fort Monroe and elsewhere remained uncertain as to whether their status as contraband would translate into real freedom.  And while Brasher acknowledges the presence of slaves in Confederate ranks, he reminds us that even those who may have taken shots at Yankees may have done so for reasons that have little to do with loyalty to the Confederate cause and master.

Ultimately, this book is about the place of free and enslaved blacks in our understanding of a military campaign and the course of the war in 1862.  What we ultimately learn is why the United States eventually recruited blacks into the army by early 1863 and why it took the Confederacy much longer.

Is the Civil War Sesquicentennial a Very Gloomy Birthday?

Exterior of National Building Museum

Thanks to The Journal of the Civil War Era for making available online a forum from their most recent issue on the future of Civil War historiography.  The essays are all worth reading and I especially enjoyed Stephen Berry’s “top ten” predictions on how broader trends within the field will shape Civil War studies in the near future.   Included in the list is a note of skepticism surrounding the reach of the ongoing sesquicentennial, though it is unclear as to how exactly this will influence academic historians:

#1: The Civil War Is about to Have a Very Gloomy Birthday

Despite some very noble efforts, the Civil War at 150 will be remembered as having been met by a collective national shrug, even in the South. Apparently Americans are happy enough to celebrate their past but not that interested in commemorating (or, better yet, understanding) it. The reason is not far to seek: the war and its racial legacy remains a can of worms most states don’t want to open publicly. Why shine a light or build a stage just so neo-Confederate dead-enders can perform their ludicrous one-man shows? In a house full of roaches, it is better to leave the lights off.

This is unfortunate in a sense—a “teachable moment” is about to go begging. But by comparison to the centennial celebrations, ambivalence is a victory. Ambivalence is the proper response to war. War is about damage, even at its most heroic, even when certain people and things deserve to be damaged. The destruction of slavery was a good thing and a great thing. Having to fight our bloodiest war to the end is neither good nor great. It is just sad. And remembering that the end of slavery was only the beginning of a longer battle for the kind of freedom that really matters is sadder still. Soon enough, if not already, the Civil War will be understood not as a test this country passed—a kiln in which the nation was fired—but as a test we failed when we couldn’t, short of war, give up our original addiction to “black gold.”

This “victory” of American ambivalence belongs to us, to academe. We have killed, or are killing, the war our fathers and grandfathers built. But no one, including ourselves, feels like celebrating, because it is already clear that our version of the war is an unlovely mess—sordid means serving varied ends, some good, most unforeseen; our version is a longer slog, less politically correct, less inspiring, and more befitting a chastened nation.

And this from Ari Kelman in his TLS review of four recent Civil War studies:

As birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway?

Why the doom and gloom and why does this attitude consistently come from within the academic community?  Perhaps these characterizations of the general public’s interest reflects their own increasingly defensive posture in response to the marginalization of history and the humanities generally in our society.  What is never included in these prognostications is any sense of what exactly is being measured.  What would a successful commemoration 150 years later look like?  What exactly do Berry and Kelman need to see to help steer us away from the cliff and collective amnesia?

Perhaps I spend too much time reading through my Google News filter about events related to the sesquicentennial.  It’s impossible to keep up.  The amount of new educational materials related to the Civil War is staggering; museums large and small are creating exhibits; teachers have a wide range of workshops to choose from and visits to NPS sites are up.  I could go on and on.  My view: The Civil War Sesquicentennial looks just like you would expect it to look like.

[Image source]

Where Have You Gone, Benjamin Butler?

I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year: 1862″ symposium on CSPAN-3.  It’s an entertaining event for the children of the Civil War Centennial.  The historians in charge of nominating this year include Robert K. Krick, David Blight, James McPherson, Jack Mountcastle, and Emory Thomas.  The historians selected are all familiar to the audience and their selections, for the most part, are predictable. Can anyone imagine Krick selecting anyone else but Jackson or anyone but Lee for Thomas?  Blight chose Frederick Douglass, which is not surprising.  McPherson’s choice of Farragut may be the only one that couldn’t be predicted.  I don’t know what to make of Mountcastle’s choice of McClellan since I am not familiar with his scholarship.

There is nothing wrong with their selections since this is clearly not a question that has a final answer.  There is also nothing necessarily wrong with the selection of historians.  All of them are well respected scholars.  That said, I do have a few suggestions for next year.  Get a panel of younger historians, whose choices may not be so predictable.  Not only are you likely to get a different short list of nominees, but the Q&A will also be an opportunity to explore new terrain rather than rehash the same tired stories.   You have to include at least one woman and an African American.  In short, perspective is everything when it comes to these kinds of events.

So, who would you choose?

My choice: Benjamin Butler