Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Carmichael Selected as New Civil War Institute Director

Congratulations to my good friend Peter Carmichael on being selected as the new Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.  It’s safe to say that anyone with a passion for Civil War history would welcome the opportunity to teach it in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“I am very excited about the Civil War Institute and building on this incredible legacy of Gabor Boritt,” said Carmichael. “There’s no other place like Gettysburg College to be a public intellectual and where you can bring together students, scholars and the public to study the Civil War. I have visited here numerous times, but to think about this place to live in and to teach is extraordinary. I am honored.”

As you can imagine this was a highly competitive position.  I know of a number of top-notch scholars who applied for this position and I am confident that any number of them would have done an excellent job of advancing the mission of the Institute.  Peter’s commitment to reaching out to the broader community as well as his interest in public history makes him an ideal choice for this position.  Best of all a move to Pennsylvania will hopefully translate into more visits with Peter and his wife.  I wish them both all the best as they prepare for another big move.

[Photograph from Five Forks, L to R: Keith Bohannon, Kevin Levin, Peter Carmichael]

Editorial Responsibility

Thought I would share a few comments that I left on the last post surrounding the exchange in Reviews In American History between Professors McDaniel and Stauffer.  First, I am in no way attempting to alleviate Stauffer of his having to take responsibility for his outrageous charge of homophobia.  Stauffer must now take ownership of what is a well-documented pattern of behavior when it comes to working out professional differences with fellow historians.

That said, I have to wonder whether the editors at RiAH dropped the ball on this one.  Why didn’t they approach Stauffer about his response to McDaniel?  Did they approach Stauffer about it?  Both the charge of homophobia made against McDaniel and the commentary regarding the website page on how to manage large reading loads have absolutely nothing at all to do with the substance of his critical review.  It’s just the kind of review that I assume the editors at the journal are looking for.  I would love to know why they believed it was appropriate to print Stauffer’s review in its entirety.  As I pointed out in a comment, isn’t there a danger of the journal losing the opportunity to work with certain historians who might now justifiably be worried about being treated in a similar manner?  This whole incident could have been so easily avoided.

What do you think?

John Stauffer Strikes Again

I have written over 75 book reviews in the last ten years that have appeared in both popular magazines and academic journals.  Anyone who has bridged both arenas knows that the focus, length, and style differ depending on the audience.  When I write for a popular magazine I lean more toward sharing the overall narrative and a bit of critical assessment if time permits.  Writing for a journal, however, demands much more of an analytical edge.  Readers are looking for analysis and assessment of the author’s thesis as well as an understanding of how the book fits into the broader historiography.  The former can be fun while the latter can at times be daunting.  Regardless of publication I’ve never felt a need to attack an author on a personal level since it has nothing to do with the content contained in the book.  Most of you out there will no doubt agree with this.

With that you can imagine my surprise and disappointment as I made my way through a section of the latest issue of Reviews in American History.  I do not subscribe to this journal and I thank one of my readers for passing it along.  The journal allows reviewers the opportunity to write extensive critiques of books that include responses by the authors themselves.  They can be very informative and incredibly entertaining as both reviewer and author do their best to defend their respective turf.  The most recent issue [March 2010] includes two reviews of John Stauffer’s book Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008), one by John Ernest and the other by W. Caleb McDaniel.  [I should point out that I have not read Giants, but I have read most of his previous study, The Black Hearts of Men.]

First, a bit of background.  Many of you will remember the inappropriate accusations leveled on this site at Prof. Vikki Bynum by Prof. Stauffer as a result of her critique of his new book on the State of Jones.  Prof. McDaniel teaches at Rice University and is the former blogger at Mode For Caleb, which is in my mind still one of the best written history blogs.

McDaniel’s review of Giants is thorough and at times highly critical.  He challenges specific claims made by Stauffer as well as his analysis that assumes a close relationship framed around friendship and an understanding of the two as “self made men.”  McDaniel also offers commentary on the structure of the book and points to sections that seem irrelevant to the broader argument:

Some chapters also veer into subjects whose relevance to the main narrative is unclear. In a lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, who is introduced as “the love of his life,” Stauffer defends C. A. Tripp’s controversial thesis that Lincoln and Speed, who shared a bed as young men, were more than platonic friends (p. 108). Those unconvinced by Tripp will probably find little here to change their minds. More importantly, Stauffer leaves unclear this section’s connection to his main argument about the “parallel lives” of Lincoln and Douglass, except for the sotto voce implication that both men endured marriages strained by love for another—in Lincoln’s case, Speed, and in Douglass’s case, Ottilie Assling and Julia Griffiths. (p. 171)

While the review is highly critical there is nothing inappropriate about this review, which I encourage you to read for yourself.  Unfortunately, Stauffer’s response to McDaniel is anything but professional.  Consider his response to the above passage:

Of course, he also hates my “lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed.” My main points in the six pages I devote to the subject are that Speed helped “civilize” Lincoln, contributing to his self-making; and that in light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed’s and Lincoln’s friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren’t physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as Mcdaniel wants to do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective. (p. 180)

Now, as far as I am concerned there is nothing inappropriate about Stauffer’s response up until that last sentence.  It is unfortunate that the editors at Reviews didn’t point this out to Stauffer as problematic.  It undercuts his entire argument because it colors the response as defensive.  Where is the professionalism?  But wait, it gets even better.  Stauffer concludes his response by referencing a webpage that McDaniel created to help his students manage the immense amount of reading that they must complete.  I find it hard to believe that Stauffer didn’t understand how this was being used:

Perhaps one reason for Mcdaniel’s animosity toward GIANTS stems from our different approaches to reading history. Mcdaniel calls for “active skimming,” as he says in his essay, “How to read for History.” do not read in a linear fashion, he tells students. Instead, jump directly from the intro to the conclusion, then from the first to last page of each chapter. “Don’t read every paragraph line by line” and “do not get hung up on things you do not under- stand.” In the second go-round, “decide which sections of the book are most important to read” in the traditional mode. The goal is simply to understand the author’s argument, ignoring the niceties of form, style, figures of speech, ambiguities, and things suggested or evoked. I confess that I was taught to read linearly, from beginning to end. and I still do! I love surprises and ambiguities and consider form and content, manner and matter, virtually inseparable. To me, the idea of jumping from opening to ending seems almost sacrilegious, destroying the subtleties and nuances of the narrative. Had I written GIANTS with Mcdaniel’s “history reader” in mind, I would have modeled it on a prosecutor’s brief or how-to guide, with lots of bullet points and bold-faced type. fortunately, most people read in the old-fashioned way, if the book’s sales, reviews, and awards are any indication. They like to look for “the stories hinted at between the lines,” to use ernest’s felicitous phrase. (p. 180)

It is unfortunate that McDaniel had to devote time to dealing with personal attacks rather than a more refined and professional response:

In reply, however, Stauffer draws several generalizations about me. He attributes my analysis to animosity and intolerance of ambiguity, suggests I was not taught how to read properly, and groundlessly insinuates that homophobic assumptions clouded my judgment. I cannot respond to all these charges here, nor is this the place to do so. The most personal charges are only answerable by my life and by those who best know me and my work….

Stauffer concludes by speculating that an unrelated teaching tool he found on my website explains how I read books for a scholarly review. I wrote “How to read for History” to help undergraduates read effectively for a semester-long history course, and notwithstanding Stauffer’s highly selective excerpts, the essay encourages students to read books carefully, more than once, constantly adjusting their judgments as they reread. I, too, gave Giants a careful reading, and I encourage interested readers to judge the book for themselves. (pp. 181-82)

I sense a pattern here.

Acquisitions, 03/14/10

Debby Applegate The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Three Leaves, 2007).

Anne J. Bailey, Invisible Southerners: Ethnicity in the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2006).

George C. Bradley and Richard L. Dahlen, From Conquest to Conciliation: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin (University of Alabama Press, 2006).

Ronald Coddington, Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

Wilma A. Dunaway, Slavery in the American Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

William Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, eds. Showdown In Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (University of Virginia Press, 2010).

Elizabeth-Fox Genovese and Eugene Genoves, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Rod Gragg, Covered With Glory: The 26th North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg (University of North Carolina Press, 2010 [originally published by Harper Collins in 2000]).

Jennifer R. Green, Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Gary R. Matthews, Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place (University of Kentucky Press, 2005).

Alexander Mendoza, Confederate Struggle For Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West (Texas A&M Press, 2007).

Susan E. O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Ethan Rafuse, Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide (Bison Books, 2008).

Duane E. Shaffer, Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

A Glorious Day in Sharpsburg and Shepherdstown

Yesterday was a whirlwind of a day in Sharpsburg, Maryland and Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  The reason for my visit was a chance to spend time with the students in Prof. Mark Snell’s course on the Civil War and memory.  I spent a beautiful morning alone on the Antietam battlefield with my handy copy of Ethan Rafuse’s new guidebook, which I think is excellent.  Ethan knows the battlefield well and does an effective job of positioning the visitor in places that are ideal for understanding the ebb and flow of battle.  I walked and read my way through much of the Morning Phase of the battle and had no problem losing myself in the sun and history.

By the time I had worked up a healthy appetite it was time for lunch with everyone’s favorite NPS Ranger, Mannie Gentile.  I’ve only met Mannie once before and that was a very brief meeting.  That said, Mannie is one of those guys whose personality shines through on his blog and that translates into feeling like you’ve known him for some time.  I thoroughly enjoyed our lunch and especially the conversation.  It’s always nice to spend time with people who do what they love.  It shines through.  The NPS is lucky to have Mannie on board now as a full-time employee and I look forward to my next visit with him.  After lunch we stopped by to see Ted Alexander.  I haven’t seen Ted in a number of years, but he is the man who is responsible for introducing me to the war back in 1993.  I am forever grateful for Ted’s encouragement of my early research interests and for opening up the archives whenever I was in town.

Continue reading