Why We Must Remember the Lincoln of 1865 and Not 2015

While running for the presidency in 2008 Barack Obama made it a point to align himself and his campaign with what he viewed as Lincoln’s vision for the nation. For many, Obama was the heir to Lincoln’s legacy. Those connections were only reinforced following his victory. In that moment the Civil War and even Reconstruction made perfect sense and it felt good. Artist Ron English’s painting and popular print, “Abraham Obama,” beautifully captures this collapse of historical time. Look closely and it’s difficult to discern where one ended and the other began.

The promise of a post-racial society has all but collapsed with recent news stories of the shooting deaths of young black men by police and the overwhelming evidence that racial inequality is growing wider in the United States. Many Americans are disappointed in what they perceive to be a lack of attention to matters of race by the president himself. But if Obama disappoints, Lincoln is always available to point us in the direction of “the better angels of our nature.” As we approach the 150th anniversary of his assassination echoes of Lincoln’s role as our national moral compass will likely grow louder. We would do well to be cautious. Continue reading “Why We Must Remember the Lincoln of 1865 and Not 2015”

Embracing Pop History on BackStory With the History Guys

Two weeks ago I recorded an interview with Ed Ayers for a segment of BackStory With the History Guys. It’s one of my favorite podcast shows and I was honored to be a guest. Our conversation took as its starting point a recent post that featured a list of the top selling history books from 2014. I offered a few observations about what this list tells us about consumers of history.

Much of our conversation did not make it into the final edited show. Ayers expressed some concern that no academics appeared on the list. I have to say that I’ve grown weary of this concern. As far as I can tell the only people who worry about it are academics. There are different ways to try to understand the past and the approach embraced by academics, including an emphasis on analytical rigor and theory, is a relatively recent approach. People have been thinking about and writing about history for thousands of years. The academy does not get to define what is and what is not history.

The overall point that I tried to make in response is that academic historians have never been in a better position to compete for the attention of consumers of history. Sure, they may not reach the kinds of numbers that appear on the list, but there is plenty of opportunity to build an audience and build interest even in the most academic of historical subjects. There are a number of professional historians who are doing just that.

Get to work.

Gary Gallagher Says Farewell to the Civil War America Series

Update: I’ve been informed that a number of forthcoming titles are being shepherded through the publication process by Gallagher. My post title probably implies a bit more finality than is warranted. I should note that a forthcoming title in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series that is co-edited by Gallagher and Caroline Janney will include an essay of mine on the Crater. That volume will be released in the Fall.

This past week I received a number of advanced copies from the University of North Carolina Press. It’s the first batch of books, where I’ve noticed that Gary Gallagher’s name no longer appears as a series editor. As many of you know Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Peter Carmichael, and Caroline Janney are taking over editing responsibilities for the press’s Civil War America series.

I think it’s worth acknowledging just how important this series has been to our understanding of the Civil War era. The series began unofficially in 1987 with the release of Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day. The series was launched officially in 1993 with Tom Cutrer’s biography of Ben McCulloch. The total number of books in the series under Gallagher’s editorship is 113. I’ve been reading books in this series since the mid-1990s and since roughly 2005 the press has been kind enough to send me review copies of all Civil War-related titles. Looking around my private library I can find Civil War America titles in every section from slavery to antebellum politics to battlefield studies, and Northern and Southern home fronts. I’ve read practically all of them. Continue reading “Gary Gallagher Says Farewell to the Civil War America Series”

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 02/19

Dean An Agrarian RepublicThomas J. Brown, Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina, (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

James Conroy, Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln And The Hampton Roads Peace Conference Of 1865 (Lyons Press, 2014). Lincoln Prize Finalist

Adam W. Dean, An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era, (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Lincoln Prize Winner

R. Douglas Hurt, Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South, (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Patrick A. Lewis, For Slavery and Union: Benjamin Buckner and Kentucky Loyalties in the Civil War, (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

Richard M. Reid, African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War, (Kent State University Press, 2015).

Richard Wightman, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History, (Norton, 2015).

It’s Never Enough (once again on the Black Confederate go-around)

Anyone who has followed this blog for any amount of time likely has a sense of the importance that I attach to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. It is, by far, the most popular topic on this site. Over the years I have had to deal with a wide range of reactions from fellow historians. There are those who have supported my efforts, those who look on in confusion and those who betray an air of condescension – as if I have descended into a circus show. In the last few months I have written very little about this subject. There have been a couple of stories out of North Carolina, but other than that the media attention has died down.

The recent essay in The Root by John Stauffer has reignited interest. This time, however, that interest has been confined to academic historians, who have chosen to wade in with their thoughts about the debate and how to move forward. Jim Downs’s contribution reflects what happens when a historian enters a discussion too hastily.

Enter historian and fellow blogger, Donald Shaffer, into the mix. Let me get straight to the point that I fundamentally disagree with the observations and recommendations contained in Shaffer’s post.

In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.

First, why is this specific debate not worthy of the attention of academic historians specifically? To say that academics do not have the “power to suppress this myth” is not only a non-starter (since academics can’t suppress any narrative that has gained cultural cache) it also fails to consider the positive impact that historians can and have had on this debate. Continue reading “It’s Never Enough (once again on the Black Confederate go-around)”