This weekend C-SPAN aired what I think is the final session from the 2012 Civil War Institute that took place this past June. I skipped this session for a chance to run around the battlefield with Keith Harris. What I missed was an entertaining and informative panel on Mark Grimsley’s landmark study, The Hard Hand of War, which was the official book of the conference. Arguably, the highlight of the panel was Megan Kate Nelson’s characterization of the book’s continued popularity as on par with the half-life of a Twinkie. She’s right.
The Hard Hand of War was one of the first Civil War books that I read roughly fifteen years ago. Although it is not a memory study per se, it does force readers to step back and assess assumptions about the nature and scope of violence that took place in places like Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864-65. I agree with the panelists who point to the book’s emphasis on understanding Sherman’s March (and broader Union policy) within a broader historical context that extends back to the Middle Ages as well as the ways in which Union soldiers embraced restraint during these final campaigns as constituting its strength.
The following clip was pulled from a recent NEH panel on the legacy of emancipation. It included Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Christy Coleman, Eric Foner, and Thavolia Glymph. I highly recommend viewing the entire session if you have the time, but for now check out this short clip from the Q&A. In it an African-American student asks if we should still associate racism with Confederate heritage. I am not surprised that Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center, decided to respond and she does so in a very fair and balanced manner. Coleman’s response reflects both the difficulties of her position as a black woman running a Civil War museum in the former capital of the Confederacy and someone who has listened closely to visitors hailing from very different backgrounds. Yeah, count me as a fan of Christy Coleman.
A couple of recent titles leave me wondering whether some version of the interpretation that the Civil War was unavoidable owing to the loss of moderate influence is making a resurgence. If so, to what extent has it been fueled by our current political culture? It’s hard not to see this at work in David Goldfield’s recent book, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, which focuses on the infusion of evangelical religion into political discourse as leading to the breakdown. [The video is from a recent presentation based on his book at the Minnesota History Center.] I just started William Cooper’s We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 so it may be too early to say much of anything that is constructive in this context, but consider one short passage in the preface:
But not all Americans wanted another compromise. In the South, radical secessionists saw this moment, the election of a northern president heading a northern party by northern voters, as their opportunity to disrupt the Union. The North had its own segment that spurned any compromise with the South. These vigorous partisans of the triumphant Republican party were determined to celebrate their victory without any deal with an alarmed, uneasy South.
Of course, two books does not make a school of thought and I have not offered much in terms of historiography, but I thought it might help to get the intellectual juices flowing. What do you think?
Much of my research and commentary on the evolution of battlefield interpretation within the National Park Service has referenced the 2000 Rally on the High Ground Conference as a watershed moment. Without being too overly simplistic the working assumption has been that the most significant changes to NPS interpretation has been in reaction to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s. legislation and accompanying symposium which brought together NPS staff and academic historians in Washington D.C. The conference examined ways in which the NPS could implement Jackson’s legislation which called for the broadening of battlefield interpretation to include the cause of the war, the role of slavery during the war, as well as other topics. This push for a broader interpretive context as well as Jackson’s involvement has been met with suspicion by segments of the general public who tend to view his involvement as political which in turn has colored the NPS’s subsequent actions as overtly political.