Calling All Civil War Memory Enthusiasts

I received the following email a few days ago from an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, who is planning to write her senior thesis on Civil War memory.  While I am flattered that this student is asking me for my advice, it seems silly not to tap the interests and experiences of my many readers.  Your responses will serve as a helpful guidebook, not only for this student, but for anyone looking to explore this fascinating topic.  Feel free to suggest readings, subtopics, questions, and anything else that you believe is relevant to this student’s project.  Thanks everyone.

I am an avid reader of your blog, which I stumbled upon several months ago subsequent to some cursory online searches for information on contemporary Civil War memory. I am currently an undergraduate soon-to-be senior at UC Berkeley and am intending to write my senior thesis project on topics in contemporary Civil War memory, particularly the memory of slavery as an institution. I’m planning to look at historical societies and museums, NPS coverage and interviews, art, literature, reenactments, the timely sesquicentennial commemorations, politics and public discourse, and popular culture (from TV to YouTube) in both the North, South, and West. As part of a follow-up on this project, I plan to spend the year subsequent to graduation (and prior to applying to graduate school) writing high school, middle school, and elementary school curriculum as both a corrective to and an exploration of problems in Civil War memory. I know you do a lot of this in your classroom.

As you would know very well, has a comprehensive project like this yet been undertaken — am I being redundant or offering something valuable to this growing field of Civil War memory? If not, is there any literature that you know of on issues of contemporary Civil War and slavery memory (other than Blight, and, well, Tony Horowitz’ Confederates in the Attic)? I hope to contribute something meaningful that bridges the gap between academic and popular discourse on the Civil War and slavery generally — and memory in particular.

I apologize for asking these questions of you, as I know you are busy and this is perhaps asking a great deal — but you are certainly a flagship for a more popular discourse on Civil War memory, and you have certainly raised questions seeking a more academic approach. I hope with a comprehensive senior thesis that I plan to turn into a Ph.D. dissertation that I can start to open that academic discourse, even at the undergraduate level.

A Few Minutes With David Blight

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship.  Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site.  Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater.  This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance.  After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.

[Click here for Part 2]

Barack Obama, Bob McDonnell, and Civil War Memory

This post originally ran in April 2007.  I thought it might be worth re-posting given the recent debate here in Virginia and throughout the country over Confederate History Month.  I am wondering whether we are witnessing a decisive shift in our collective memory of the war?  Is the governor’s apology an indication that it is no longer possible to use the Lost Cause for political gain?

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the “emptiness” referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

We shall see.

Skyping With Skidmore

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Prof. Gregory Pfitzer, who is currently teaching a course in American Studies at Skidmore College.  His students are examining various aspects of Civil War memory and as part of their reading Prof. Pfitzer assigned one of my blog posts on the recent controversy surrounding the SCV’s Davis-Limber statue that was supposed to be placed on the grounds at the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond.  I agreed to respond to their comments.  I did my best to respond to every student and on more than one occasion the give and take resulted in lengthy threads.  The students’ comments were incredibly thoughtful and forced me to rethink some of my own assumptions about this story. [Skidmore comments begin with #17 on March 11]

Prof. Pfitzer and I decided to follow up the assignment with a Skype interview, which we thought would give students a chance to ask further questions about the subject or anything else on their minds about Civil War Memory.

Untitled from Kevin Levin on Vimeo.

More Liberal Lies About America

I decided to take a few minutes to follow up on yesterday’s post concerning the so-called “Liberal Lies” about American history that can be found in most college history textbooks.  While we didn’t find any evidence yesterday to confirm the FOX News piece perhaps we will have better luck today.  Let’s look at Schweikart’s claim that comes at 3:10 in the video:

Harry Truman ordered the Atomic bombing of Japan to intimidate the Soviets with “Atomic Diplomacy”.

Schweikart goes on to say that there is no evidence in the newly opened Japanese archives (not sure what he is referring to here) to confirm that Japan intended to do anything other than fight to the death. Rather than head straight to the textbooks, however, let’s take a look at the 1988 DBQ that focused specifically on the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb in 1945.  Here is the prompt and question:

The United States decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a diplomatic measure calculated to intimidate the Soviet Union in the post-Second World-War era rather than a strictly military measure designed to force Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Evaluate this statement using the documents and your knowledge of the military and diplomatic history of the years 1939 through 1947.

We all know that the College Board is a bastion of left wing ideology and that a committee of history professors and history teachers formulate the DBQs so we should be able to find the kind of bias that Hannity and Schweikart, and Richard Williams are trying to protect us from.  Check it out for yourself.  You will notice that the documents force students to acknowledge that the decision to drop the bomb must be understood from multiple perspectives.  Students must weigh the specific sources, along with their background knowledge and come up with a solid thesis statement.  I’ve used this DBQ every year that I’ve taught the AP course and every year my students disagree.  A student can earn a score of 9 for any number of positions.  The 9, however, almost always includes a concession paragraph that acknowledges that the question is complex and can be answered in more than one way.  It is the responsibility of the student to justify why he/she has taken a specific approach.  Is there something wrong with this question?  Are we teaching our students to hate America because we ask them to weigh evidence rather than see American history in black or white?  Where is the “Lie”?

I went and took a quick look at the same textbooks that I referenced yesterday as well a few more and not one offered the simplistic explanation that Schweikart believes is pervasive in college classrooms throughout the country.  In fact, I was pretty impressed with the amount of attention given to this question.  Most give equal weight to the goals of ending the war swiftly to minimize the loss of American life, the role of domestic and international politics, and a host of other factors.

This report is disturbing on so many different levels.  It’s difficult to see how this is “fair and balanced” in any way shape or form.  If a student handed this in as an example of investigative journalism I would give it a grade of F.  There may, in fact, be a liberal conspiracy at work in our history classrooms, but you need to provide real evidence if you hope to convince folks beyond those that already believe that this must be the case.  The quality of this piece and the decision of at least one blogger to post it without any explanation reflects something much more disturbing than anything about the so-called liberal bias in history textbooks.