Category Archives: Civil War Historians

New Guest Post Series: Civil War Classics

I am pleased to announce a new series of guest posts that will be authored by graduate students who are enrolled in Professor Peter Carmichael’s Readings Course at West VirginiaUniversity.  Professor Carmichael and I have been talking about doing this for some time now.  Students are required to write a 300-500 word review of a Civil War classic and then participate in any dialogue that may follow.  The only criteria for selecting a book is that the author needs to be dead.  A few of the students have already contacted me with information about their particular titles and I suspect that the first reviews will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.  Stay tuned.

I like this idea for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, it introduces young scholars to the possibilities associated with social media.  Many of Professor Carmichael’s students hope to enter the field of Public History, which has been particularly strong in taking advantage of social media tools such as blogging and, especially, Twitter.  Organizations such as the Museum of the Confederacy, Virginia Historical Society, and Lincoln Cottage are just a few that come immediately to mind.  From my vantage point, however, it looks like History Departments have been slow to acknowledge the possibilities associated with social media tools.  The exception has been in the area of digital history.  I thoroughly enjoyed following their commentary on the state of the field at the recent AHA through Twitter [use the hashtag #AHA2010].  It goes without saying that the growth of digital history and the culture that each generation brings to the field will lead to even more dramatic changes in how History Department’s evaluate social media.

p.s. I don’t think we are going to see a review of anything by Bruce Catton.  I just liked the photo.

Edward Sebesta v. Barack Obama and the Battle for Civil War Memory

Looks like anti-Neo-Confederate crusader, Edward Sebesta, is getting a head start on this year’s petition requesting that President Obama not send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery.  I covered this in some detail on the blog and was very open in my opposition to such a petition.  [You can read my commentary here and here.]  To sum up, I didn’t see how a petition (written by Sebesta and James Loewen) against the laying of a wreath would lead to anything approaching a constructive and meaningful dialog about the Civil War, race, and memory.  More importantly, it all but ignored the fact that we now have a president in office who is ideally suited to encourage and/or lead such a discussion.

Sebesta seems quite pleased with the impact of the petition, though I believe he exaggerates its affect.  First, let me be clear that I agree with Sebesta’s general assessment of the problem with the Confederate monument at Arlington.  It perpetuates a number of myths about slavery and black Confederates.  The monument was dedicated at the height of Jim Crow and ought to be seen as one of the clearest expressions of the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War.  While we may agree on interpretation we disagree on how best to engage the general public regarding such sensitive issues.  Continue reading

Have Unit Histories Hit a Brick Wall?

I just finished reading Scott Mingus’s book on the Louisiana Tigers for a review in the journal, Louisiana History.  Mingus’s focus is specifically the Gettysburg Campaign (June-July 1863)  Let me just say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Mingus has a command of the relevant primary sources and the book is well written and should be read by those interested in military history, Louisiana History and, of course, Gettysburg.  I will post the review when it is published, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that will not make it in the review owing to space issues.

It seems to me that unit histories fall into one of two camps.  The first one, and by far the most prominent, is the standard/traditional unit history, which emphasizes the campaigns/battles in which the unit participated.  This should come as no surprise given that this is what most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in.  The focus may be on a unit’s experience in a particular campaign or the war as a whole.  By focusing on one unit the historian is able to provide a level of tactical detail that is usually absent from broader studies.  The best of the bunch may even be able to point out crucial aspects of a particular battle that work to revise our understanding of its outcome and significance.  Mingus’s book fits neatly into this first camp.  He offers the reader a brief history of the unit, beginning with the raising of Company B under the command of Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat in New Orleans in 1861.  Mingus briefly touches on the unit’s early history before the battalion was assigned to the First Louisiana Brigade under the command of brigadier general Harry T. Hays in 1862.  From there it is a quick jump to the spring of 1863 following the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  Mingus does an outstanding job of following the unit on its march north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and covers the unit’s involvement in the battle of Second Winchester in great detail.  It goes without saying that Mingus’s coverage of the “Louisiana Tigers” at Gettysburg will satisfy even the most voracious appetites for tactical detail. Continue reading

Best of 2009

Once again, thanks to all of you for making Civil War Memory part of your daily Online travels.  There were plenty of good books published in the field of Civil War history in 2009 and 2010 looks to be just as good.  Listed below are a few of my favorite titles from the past year.  I hope all of you are enjoying the Holiday Season.

Best History Blog: American History Now This was the easiest pick of the year.  Those of you well versed in the historiography of Civil War memory studies may be familiar with Jim Cullen’s book, The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past.  Somehow between his many publications and teaching, Jim has managed to maintain what is in my mind one of the best history/teaching blogs.  He blogs about all things American history and culture and his ongoing series about a fictional history teacher is a must read.  This is intelligent and creative blogging at its best.

Best Civil War Blog: Gettysburg Daily Can’t get to Gettysburg?  The next best thing is a regularly updated blog that is packed with beautiful photographs, panoramas, and tours with Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides.  A great deal of work goes into each post, which leaves one wondering how they are able to maintain the site on a regular basis.  Well, however they do it, I just want to say that it is appreciated by this Civil War enthusiast.

Best History Book of 2009: Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1798-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Best Overall Civil War History: Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2009).

Best Campaign Study: William Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Best Biography: Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Best Confederate Study: Barton Myers, Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Community, 1861-1865 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

Best Union Study: Stephen Ramold, Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).

Best Slavery Study: Lacy Ford, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Best Memory Study: Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (University of California Press, 2009).

Best Edited Collection: Lee Ann Whites and Alicia P. Long, Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation and the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

Best Social History: Jeffrey McClurken, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2009).

Some good things to look forward to in 2010: Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis (UNC Press and the Littlefield Series, June 2010); William W. Freehling, Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (University of Virginia Press, April 2010); Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (University of North Carolina Press, April 2010); Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, April 2010); C.S. Manegold, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North (Princeton University Press, January 2010); Larry Logue and Peter Blanck eds., Race, Ethnicity, and the Treatment of Disability in Post-Civil War America (Cambridge University Press, June 2010).

Sgt. Richard Kirkland For All Of Us

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about Sgt. Richard Kirkland lately.  Last week Peter Carmichael referenced Kirkland in his speech marking the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg.  Carmichael used the Kirkland story and his monument on the Fredericksburg battlefield to point out our tendency to glamorize the Civil War and ignore the more horrific aspects of battle and the challenges of soldiering.  In addition, a new movie about Kirkland is scheduled to be released at some point soon.  As someone who focuses on why we remember certain aspects of the war I am less interested in the history of Kirkland than in why his story continues to be so attractive.  Actually, with all that has been written about Kirkland I am struck by how little we know about him.  If you read the many short stories published about Kirkland at the turn of the twentieth century you get the sense that they are much more reflective of what the authors and society chose needed to remember about the Civil War as opposed to simply Kirkland himself.  Kirkland serves more as a template for our collective memory of the war; one could almost say that we are using him for our own purposes.  I think Carmichael is right about our selective memory regarding Kirkland’s actions.  We want to see him as the “angel” in waiting rather than as someone who took part in the brutal slaughter of Union soldiers on that December day.  The scores of published accounts and paintings narrow our focus of Kirkland’s experience at Fredericksburg to that one point as opposed to a participant in the broader battle and war.  How many of those “Yankee” soldiers did he gun down out of revenge for the looting of the town?  Can we even acknowledge such questions?

The truth is that our memory of Kirkland (like much of the war) has always been instrumental in allowing us as a nation to move further away from the history of the Civil War.  We can see this in South Carolina during the 1890s under the leadership of Governor Ben Tillman where the first Kirkland monument was unveiled.  Consider W. Scott Poole’s analysis:

South Carolina’s new leadership class continued to give a respectful nod to the Lost Cause, but their Lost Cause represented a dead past to be honored rather than  living ideology of defiance.  Increasingly, reconciliation with the North became a theme of even the Lost Cause celebrations.  Wealthy landlords, railroad interests, textile mill owners, and the ladies of the UDC could find little reason to refight the issues of the war.  This new ideology found expression in Confederate monuments as well.  The town of Camden, in Kershaw County, for example, dedicated a decorative drinking fountain to Richard Kirkland, as South Carolina soldier who had taken water to the suffering wounded in both blue and gray after the battle of Fredericksburg.  Rather than symbolizing Confederate virtue, this monument, built with money raised by some of Tillman’s public school children, honors the turn-of-the-century sentiment of reconciliation.  An inscription describes Kirkland as “moved by Christlike compassion” for the northern soldiers he aided, a sentiment at odds with the warrior virtues praised by earlier Lost Cause celebration.  As if to stress the changed meaning of this particular Lost Cause monument, the Humane Society of New York City provided the design for the structure. (p. 190)

If I understand Poole correctly, it looks like the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” functioned to help build economic ties between a “New South” that struggled to reconcile itself to a modern economy and an industrial North.  It could do so not by abandoning its past, but by remembering it in a way that did not alienate white northerners, who were no longer seen as enemies, but as potential business partners.