Category Archives: Civil War Historians

David Blight on Why the Civil War Matters

There is nothing too surprising about this short interview with Prof. David Blight, but I thought it would be a nice way to end the work week.  Teachers may find this useful as a way of introducing basic questions of historical memory with students.  Blight touches on how Americans remember the Civil War, race, the Civil War Centennial and Sesquicentennial, and Barack Obama’s place in this narrative.

Check out Blight’s Yale lectures on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil War memory.

 

Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

Continue reading

 

Is There Room For Another Academic Journal For Civil War Studies?

The Society for Civil War Historians thinks so.  Last week a circular email was sent to all members indicating that the two year relationship with the journal, Civil War History (published by Kent State Press) is coming to an end.  During this time members were able to subscribe to the journal through their annual dues to the Society.  The organization has decided to accept an offer by the University of North Carolina Press to make their new publication, the Journal of the Civil War Era, the official journal of the Society starting in 2011.  I won’t bore you with the details as to why the decision was made, but it came down to the UNC Press agreeing to help with advertising and other managerial responsibilities.

Regarding the new journal:

The Journal of the Civil War Era will be edited by Bill Blair.  Anthony E. Kaye of Pennsylvania State University will serve as Associate Editor for Books and Reviews, while Aaron Sheehan-Dean of the University of North Florida will be Associate Editor for the Profession.  Bill has provided the following description of the journal:

The Journal of the Civil War Era is determined to publish the most creative new work on the full range of topics of interest to scholars of this period. We will continue to feature fresh perspectives on military, political, and legal history of the era. Moreover, articles, essays, and reviews will attend to slavery and antislavery, labor and capitalism, popular culture and intellectual history, expansionism and empire, and African American and women’s history. The editors mean The Journal of the Civil War Era to be a venue where scholars engaged in the full range of theoretical perspectives that animate historical practice can find a home. By bringing together scholars from areas that now intersect only sporadically, the publisher and editor hope to galvanize the larger field of nineteenth-century history intellectually and professionally.

In addition to peer-reviewed, cutting-edge scholarship, the journal will offer a variety of other elements designed to engage historians, sharpen debate, and hone practices in the profession, in the classroom, and in theory and method:

• Review essays that analyze emergent themes and map new directions in historiography.
• Book reviews by experienced, published scholars that offer critical perspectives on key works in the field and the discipline.
• Reviews of films, digital archive collections, websites, museum exhibitions, and interventions in other media.
• Columns on the profession that alert readers to recent issues in the job market, teaching, and technology and help historians of the Civil War Era find the leading edge of these trends.

Scholars who have agreed to serve on the new journal’s editorial board include Stephen Berry, David Blight, Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Stephanie McCurry, and Carol Reardon.

This is very exciting news and I assume most, if not all, members of the Society will transition to the new journal.  I know I will, but that leaves the question of what to do with my subscription to Civil War History.  I’ve had a subscription to the journal since 2002 and look forward to every issue.  It is the premiere journal in our area, but I am concerned as to whether the field can, in fact, handle two academic journals.  In addition to Civil War History, I subscribe to The Journal of Southern History and The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.  I honestly don’t know if my budget can handle two Civil War journals.

The more important question, however, is who will take on the management of the journal given that Bill Blair is taking on editorial responsibilities and so many additional scholars are signing on in various capacities.  We shall see.

 

Where Were You Educated?

Yesterday I was contacted by a descendant of a family that included a very well known “black Confederate.”  The individual in question had read some of my commentary on this man and volunteered to answer any questions I might have.  We had a pleasant conversation and I asked a few questions.   I think my caller was much more interested in making sure that I understood that his ancestor and slave were very close and that the family treated their property humanely.  Yes, I understand all too well.  While I appreciated his reassurances I was much more interested in documentation than I was in family stories.

Then I was asked where I was educated.  The question surprised me and I asked why a response was important.  I was told that it would help to better understand what I believe about this subject.  Of course, I quickly shot back that it has absolutely nothing necessarily to do with what I believe about this topic or any other aspect of the Civil War.  It’s not that I have a problem with where I was raised and educated.  You can easily find out where I was educated if that is of interest to you, but I don’t feel a need to encourage the kind of judgment that I know would ensue if I had responded.  You want to talk history?  Let’s talk history.  The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

What I should have said is that while the region of the country in which I was educated is irrelevant, the historians that have shaped my thinking about the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond are fair game and very relevant.  Given their personal backgrounds it is safe to say that I was educated by white and black Southerners: Edward Ayers, David M. Potter, C. Vann Woodward, William J. Cooper, John Hope Franklin and the list goes on.

I hope that helps.

 

How Best to Respond to the Black Confederate Narrative

I have been giving this question some thought since our recent discussion surrounding the upcoming movie about Patrick Cleburne and the broader black Confederate narrative.  As many of you know I’ve been committed to responding to some of the more outlandish claims in the news and on numerous websites.  My goal has not been simply to deny these claims, but to work to steer the debate in a direction that may help us to better understand the complexity surrounding the question of how the Confederate war effort challenged the slave – master relationship as well as broader issues of race relations in the South.  I feel comfortable in concluding that between these posts and the intelligent discussion that almost always ensues that this site offers the most thought provoking commentary to be found on this issue on the Web.  That said, I am very much aware of its limitations.

First and foremost, Civil War Memory was never meant as a place to showcase my scholarship in a finished form on any subject nor was it meant to be considered as a digital history site.  Yes, I regularly share ideas that I am working on and excerpts from finished projects, but I am not doing history here in a strict sense.  I’ve always thought of my blog as a place to share ideas about teaching, the books I am reading, the news items I come across and a host of other concerns.  Some of these threads are relatively short while others are quite extensive.  In other words, I think it would be a mistake to treat this site as a legitimate secondary source of any kind.

That said, I do think that the extended thread on black Confederates offers the interested reader a great deal to consider.  A number of posts explore the terms employed in this debate while others counter claims made about specific individuals.  In fact, we’ve not had one example of a supposed black Confederate hold up under close scrutiny.  I want to thank those of you who have helped to hunt down the necessary archival materials, work that should have been carried out by those making the claims.

Still, as I pointed out there are limitations to what a blog can do in addressing these issues.   Most importantly, blogs easily lend themselves to partisan bickering since they can be attributed to an individual or organization.  In the eyes of most observers all is equal on the Web.  Anyone and everyone can establish their own website and/or comment on a subject regardless of their background and competence.  That is both a blessing and a curse.  I’ve met some very talented and smart people through this site, but I’ve also been forced to deal with outright incompetency.  The black Confederate issue provides us with a case study of the pros and cons of the dangers and possibilities associated with the Web.  Continue reading