Best of 2010

Civilians During the battle of Fredericksburg

Unfortunately, this year’s picks are based on a slightly shorter list of books than in the past owing to the amount of time I spent over the summer revising my book manuscript on the battle of the Crater.  However, that didn’t prevent me from reading a fairly large number of books that are worth acknowledging at the end of another year.  Thanks to all of you for taking the time to read, comment, and consider what I have to say.  I have no plans to quit blogging.  In fact, the popularity of this site continues to grow and continues to open up new opportunities for me that I could not have imagined just a few short years ago.  The coming year promises to be another good one on both the professional and personal fronts.  I hope all of you are enjoying the Holiday Season.

Best Civil War Blog: This was one of the easiest choices that I’ve had to make in this category since starting this list.  While there are plenty of good Civil War blogs to choose from only a select few stand out to me as important resources for both scholars and general enthusiasts.  John Hennessy’s Mysteries and Conundrums is hands down the most important Civil War blog in our little corner of the blogosphere.  M&C is the group blog of the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and while Hennessy is the most visible writer other contributors include Noel Harrison, Mac Wycoff, and Eric Mink.  Their blog offers a behind-the-scenes look at the complex process involved in interpreting some of America’s most sacred and controversial historic sites.  The site offers interested readers a primer on how public history is done and it does so by engaging the public as an integral part of the process.  No other website or even published study has taught me more over the past year about the history of the Fredericksburg area, public history, and Civil War memory.  Thanks to John and the rest of the staff for inviting us inside, showing us how it is done, and for providing a blueprint that other historic sites can employ.

Best History Book of 2010: Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010).

Best Overall Civil War History: George Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, 2010).

Best Campaign/Battle Study: Earl J. Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).

Best Biography: Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton, 2010).

Best Confederate Study: Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Best Union Study: Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York University Press, 2010).

Best Slavery Study: Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Best Memory Study: Benjamin G. Cloyd, Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory (Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

Best Edited Collection: Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller eds. ,The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War (Fordham University Press, 2010).

Best Social History: Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Some good things to look forward to in 2011: Joseph Glatthaar, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee (University of North Carolina Press); David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton); James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (University of North Carolina Press); Wallace Hettle, Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory (Louisiana State University Press); Brooks Simpson, The Civil War in the East: A Reassessment (Praeger); Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Harvard University Press); David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury Press).

No One Needs To Give You the Opportunity to Speak

Nina Silber, Gary Gallagher, and David Blight

The other day I posted two videos of some of the most respected Civil War historians writing today.  The group had taken part in a conference sponsored by the Citadel and were asked to share some thoughts about popular misconceptions of the war as well as the upcoming sesquicentennial.  Anyone familiar with Civil War scholarship is familiar with their names as well as their scholarship.  However, there was some frustration expressed in response to the videos, not because of anything having to do with the content, but with the decision to invite the same cast of characters.  One reader expressed it as follows:

Give us the opportunity and we’ll speak, but I’d wager that the producers of these videos sent out an e-mail blast to the usual suspects, and no young scholars. It’s the nature of the profession that those better established will have the podium, and those of us in the beginnings of our careers will be struggling to have our voices heard. In general, and especially in public history, we’re all having a tough time getting that podium because the folks inspired by the centennial are still firmly ensconced in the positions they obtained thirty and thirty-five years ago. Give us a microphone and we’ll talk your ear off, but until someone offers us the stage we can’t help out with any efficacy.

In one breath you ask “where are our younger scholars taking an active role in this?” and in the next you claim that “no one would give such responsibility to young people today.” It is this major disconnect, this distrust of us to do justice to the history, which keeps our voices out of the sesquicentennial. We are an ipod and youtube generation, but that doesn’t diminish our interest or scholarly aptitude.

I certainly understand the frustration and, to a certain extent, I sympathize with such a view.  However, it rests on a faulty assumption and that is that we need to wait for someone to give us the opportunity to speak.  I am the first person to admit that it’s always nice to receive an invitation to take part in an academic conference or panel discussion and other such events that have a traditionally scholarly flavor.  But to be completely honest, these types of events make little sense to me in an age of social media.  Events such as this are opportunities to catch up with friends and check out new books.  The sharing of ideas could be done much more effectively online.   I do my speaking and connecting with people here.  This is my podium and this is where my voice can be heard.  I connect with more people in one day here at Civil War Memory than I would in roughly 10-20 standard conference presentations. [Update: Let me just clarify that I am not suggesting that the traditional conference format no longer has any value.  I should have been more careful with how I characterized such events.  Of course, I attend these events to listen to top-notch scholars and, on occasion, to share my own ideas.]

As much as I respect and enjoy listening to the folks included in those videos those are not the voices that will be heard over the course of the next few years.  It’s going to be those individuals who figure out how to effectively utilize the many social networking tools that are currently available.  Consider my friend, M. Keith Harris, who recently finished his PhD in American history at the University of Virginia and now lives in Los Angeles.  Keith specializes in the Civil War and historical memory [see his, Slavery, Emancipation, and Veterans of the Union Cause: Commemorating Freedom in the Era of Reconciliation, 1885-1915, Civil War History – September 2007, pp. 264-290] and he is also a fitness nut.  Keith does not currently hold an academic position, but that has not prevented him from finding interesting ways of sharing his knowledge and building an audience.  You can find Keith at his blog, Cosmic America, on Twitter, and on UStream, where he is currently in the middle of a series of lectures on the Civil War.

Whether you approve of Keith’s style or not, he is not sitting around waiting for someone to provide him with an audience.  He is creating one from the ground-up.  The author of the above comment is right to point out that this is an iPod and YouTube generation, but that is not something that ought to be frowned upon, but rather embraced.  It’s exactly the generation that has the potential to revolutionize what it means to engage in scholarly discourse as well as connect with others.

You want to make an impact?  You want to be heard?  Just Do It!

“Now, I am a Conservative, a Neo-Confederate so That’s My Point of View” – William Scarborough,

Yesterday, I linked to two videos that feature Civil War historians discussing various issues related to the Civil War and historical memory.  In the second video, the panel was asked to share what they take to be one of the most popular misconceptions of the war.  While Emory Thomas and James I. Robertson highlight the tendency among some to downplay the importance of race and slavery in the war, Professor William Scarborough offers the following curious assessment:

There is a misconception about how harsh slavery was.  I mean it was not akin to the Nazi Concentration Camps at all.  It wasn’t great, that’s for sure but it was a lot more flexible than a lot of people think today.  Now I am a conservative, a neo-Confederate so that’s my point of view.

I have no idea what one’s identification as a conservative has to do with a question about the history of slavery and its brutality so I am going to steer clear of it.  Scarborough’s identification as a “neo-Confederate” is baffling given that those who group themselves around such a label or are identified as such steadfastly resist coming to terms with its importance to the coming of the war and if they do discuss it it comes wrapped in the old “loyal slave” or black Confederate narrative.  Yes, historians have clearly shown over the past few decades that slavery was flexible in any number of ways depending on where you look and at what time.  What’s is truly baffling is that Scarborough himself has contributed to this literature on slavery and has even highlighted its brutality.  One of the most interesting studies that I’ve read about slavery is his, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-nineteenth-century South (Louisiana State University Press, 2003).  It’s a thick book, but well worth your time.

Scarborough opens up chapter 5, “Toiling For Old ‘Massa'”, with the following:

Whether they toiled in the miasmic rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country or in the broiling heat of the cotton and cane fields in the Southwest, the African American slaves of the antebellum South earned handsome profits for their owners but often at the expense of human suffering almost without parallel in modern times.  It should be remembered, however, that the condition of laboring people generally in the nineteenth century was little short of deplorable.  It was that condition that impelled Karl Marx to launch his midcentury assault against the exploitation of labor by capital in the rapidly industrializing nations of the Western world.  Indeed, with respect to the material conditions of life–food, clothing, shelter, and hours of labor–the chattel slaves of the South did not fare badly compared to their working class counterparts elsewhere on the planet.  Rather, it was the absolute denial of freedom that set them apart from other workers and often made their lot unbearable.  Slavery rendered them impotent to protect the integrity of their families and frequently exposed them to the erratic behavior of insensitive owners.

While some may have trouble swallowing Scarborough’s placing of slavery within the broader context of nineteenth century labor he still makes the point about the brutality of slavery, which, at its core involved the denial of freedom and the treating another individual as a means to an end.  Unfortunately, I don’t think such a paragraph and the book as a whole qualifies Prof. Scarborough for “Neo-Confederate” status.  This is historical scholarship at its best.  No “Gone With the Wind” fantasies in this book.

I know “Neo-Confederates”.  You sir, are no “Neo-Confederate”.

Ann DeWitt and Kevin M. Weeks Misrepresent Bruce Levine

Update: Bruce Levine emailed the following to me: “Of course — as would (should?) be clear to anyone who hears or reads the text of my short talk — my point was that facts like the ones I cited are today misconstrued as proof for the preposterous claim that the Confederate army included thousands of black soldiers. That two people who enthusiastically participate in this kind of shameless distortion of historical facts should do the same to my own expose of such chicanery just seems par for the course.”

I assume there is nothing worse for an author than to be misquoted or, even worse, have your own words used to support a position that is contrary to your own personal view.  In the case of a historian this is tantamount to having years of hard work misunderstood and manipulated for some other purpose.  This has happened to my good friend, Ken Noe, as well as Ed Bearrs, who has been misquoted on numerous websites that promote the black Confederate myth.  The latest victim is Bruce Levine, who is the author of one of the only scholarly studies of the debate surrounding black enlistment in the Confederate army [Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War] and is a vocal critic of the black Confederate narrative.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Entangled in Freedom authors, Ann DeWitt and Kevin M. Weeks, have cited Professor Levine in a way that supports their own interpretive and factual claims on the website for their book:

. . . and some slaves served as personal servants to white soldiers.  It was not unusual for such slaves to be given uniforms; and occasionally, one of them even picked up and fired his master’s musket at northern soldiers.  Thereby, perhaps, winning for themselves some additional approval and trust from the white confederate soldiers all around them . . .  These things are well known facts.  They are not controversial. Nobody that I know of denies them.

The passage was pulled from a presentation that Professor Levine gave at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference held at Norfolk State University.  You can watch the video here, which should leave little doubt as to Levine’s position.  I’ve written extensively about this book and its authors so there is no reason to repeat myself.  Either DeWitt and Weeks made a conscious decision to misrepresent Levine’s position or we are left with the more likely conclusion that the two are incapable of even the most rudimentary analysis of a historian’s interpretation.  Either way they have misrepresented his position and the passage ought to come down.