“I Would Save the Union….”

I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective.  We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862.  We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation.  One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox.  On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation.  It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.

Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery.  We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union.  I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish.  A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation.  We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union.  At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation.  In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty.  With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war.  I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union.  To be completely honest, I never thought of this.

I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful.  The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion.  With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher.  As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.

“Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew.  It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester.  Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.

Continue reading ““Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?””

What’s in a Name?

Make your way over to Vast Public Indifference for a fascinating series of posts on the naming of enslaved and free blacks after Confederate heroes.

A Civil War Title That is Too Good to be True

51k3yuRVRmL._SS500_I was in the process of ordering Jeffrey McClurken’s new book on Amazon when I came across this hilarious book on Lincoln that is being published by Pelican Press.  The book is titled, Lincoln Über Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America.  Eat your heart out, DiLorenzo.  The brief description is priceless: “Abraham Lincoln’s election was favorably influenced by the influx of German revolutionaries who fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848. Then, his agenda to establish a central government with unlimited political power caused the American Civil War. This fascinating book puts forth these arguments and also explores how, after the war, the legality of secession was viewed.”

On a different note, check out the thoughtful and hard-nosed critique of recently-published Lincoln studies by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic.  One of the books reviewed is by our friend, John Stauffer, who clearly has trouble handling critiques of his scholarship.

Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln

Of course, most of you know that Burlingame recently published his massive 2-volume study of Abraham Lincoln.  This talk was recorded at Illinois College on March 26, 2009.  Click through the video to get the rest of his talk.  In part 3 Burlingame suggests that Lincoln was assassinated by John W. Booth as a result of his suggestion that some blacks should be given the right to vote.  He goes on to suggest that Lincoln’s assassiantion should be understood as part of a larger narrative that includes Martin L. King, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwermer and other civil rights advocates.  I think he is right about the first point, but I’m not sure I buy the second.  Regardless, Burlingame is one of the more thoughtful Lincoln scholars and you are sure to learn something.