Stephanie McCurry on Power and Politics in the Civil War South

One of the most important books published last year was Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).  This talk was given at Duke University and I highly recommend it if you have not had an opportunity to read the book.  McCurry spends a great deal of time laying out her hemispheric explanation of the Confederate slave enlistment debate.

We Are Not Living in Lincoln’s House Divided

This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse.  I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate.  To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this.  That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.

As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context.  Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence.  Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:

This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.

First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy.  We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology.  That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture.  As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally.  We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided.  As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.

I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s.  Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war.  Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this?  I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well.  Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.

I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”

Developing Historic Land To Save It in Petersburg

I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land.  He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction.  I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground.  At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs.  I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained.  Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.

John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality.  I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery.  At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.

Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century.  In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg.  The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936.  Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.

Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.

Not Really A Review of PBS’s “Robert E. Lee”

It’s nice to see that the latest installment [airs tonight at 9pm] of PBS’s American Experience on Robert E. Lee is getting its fair share of attention.  A few months back PBS mailed me a preview copy of the documentary.  In fact, I talked with producers of the show about three years ago and even suggested a number of the historians who were utilized as commentators.  Of course, I have no idea whether I was influential in their final choice.  I’ve read a number of very good newspaper and blog reviews and I tend to agree with the the overall positive consensus.  No doubt, the usual suspects will cry foul by accusing the producers of revisionism and political correctness; however, in the end, it’s a solid documentary based on the best scholarship.  I could quibble with some minor points, but that would miss the documentary’s target audience.  With the official beginning of the sesquicentennial there will be an increased demand for entertaining and serious documentaries and this one sets a high standard.

What I value about this series by American Experience is their commitment to ensuring that their programs are based on the latest scholarship.   Today I showed a bit more of the History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” which included commentary from Brian Williams, David Baldacci, and Al Sharpton among others.  It was a complete joke.  Tonight you will hear from Gary Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, Peter Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, and Emory Thomas.  All are talented historians.  I don’t have a direct line to the past.  Just about everything I can claim to know about the Civil War is from reading the scholarship of others and, in the case of Lee, from reading these historians.  In fact, apart from  my own research interest, I don’t really know how to engage in historical discourse apart from scholarship that I’ve read.

So, if you have recently been bitten by that Civil War bug sit back and enjoy this documentary and the next time you are in your local bookstore or Online check out one of these titles:

Read, people, read.

Teaching Virginia’s “Reluctant Decision”

Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes.  We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede.  This is not an easy task.  While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult.  Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.

Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed.  In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia.  In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861.  What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee.  The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery.  As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation.  In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it.  And that brings us to the final problem:  We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South.  It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.

This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union.  For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement.  Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages.  The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion.  I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate.  The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues.  In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union.  Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present.  The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves.  The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter.  Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.

I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.