One of the nice things about my job is that I get to work one-on-one with seniors who are interested in doing independent work in history. I am finishing up a project with one of my students on how the Civil War was commemorated here in Charlottesville between 1880 and 1920 and beginning the process of working with a student to formulate a project for next year. This student wants to explore how Civil War soldiers responded to the horrors of war witnessed in the aftermath of battle. We still need to nail a few things down, including the question of whether to look at this question over time or in response to one particular battle.
Luckily this student is excited to get started and even broached the idea of doing some reading over the summer. I’ve decided to assign Drew Faust’s recent book on death and the Civil War, which should provide a helpful context in which to understand the cultural parameters of death in the nineteenth century. Other studies that I am thinking about include Eric T. Dean’s Shook Over Hell, the section on Fredericksburg’s wounded by George Rable, and Joe Glatthaar’s chapter, “To Slaughter One Another Like Brutes” in General Lee’s Army.
My student is going to spent significant time collecting archival material at UVA, but I want him to do a good amount of reading in the relevant secondary sources. Obviously, there is plenty of material out there that can be utilized for such a project; however, I am looking for secondary sources (battle/campaign studies, unit histories, biographies) where the historian goes beyond the descriptive and provides some kind of analysis. If you have something in mind please share it with me even if it is a single book title, journal or magazine essay. Thanks.
It’s difficult to deny that the image of women in the work of contemporary Civil War artists tells us much more about the individual artist than the reality of women’s lives or the way those lives were transformed during the Civil War. I pick on Mort Kunstler quite a bit, but his characters beg for analysis and often ridicule. Such is the case with his most recent offering, “Autograph Seekers of Bel Air.” One could even go so far as to suggest that in a great deal of the Civil War print culture women don’t even exist outside of the gaze of men or, in this case, fawning over men – usually Confederates. Historians of the Lost Cause have noted the role that women played in support of the Confederate cause and their admiration for Confederate chieftains such as Jackson, Stuart, and most importantly, Lee. Of course, while there is a great deal of evidence to support such claims, it also offers a very narrow view of women that obscures class distinctions and the hardships that they faced throughout the conflict.
I recently finished reading Stephanie McCurry’s lead essay in the newly-published collection, Wars Within a War: Controversy and Conflict Over the Civil War (UNC Press, 2009). McCurry focuses on poor soldiers’ wives who took steps to organize in response to an increasingly encroaching Confederate government which left them with serious food shortages and unprotected from the Federal army and slaves. In her analysis, McCurry uncovers interstate communication and organization that led to food riots in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Salisbury, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama. According to McCurry, the extent that the war politicized women involved a renegotiation of their relationship with the state.
McCurry’s essay (part of a larger and much anticipated book project) represents a small piece of a much larger story about women during the Civil War that historians have uncovered over the past few decades. Much of this literature has redefined what we know about women, their roles, and the consequences of the war on the place of women in the polity. It would be silly of me to inquire into the absence of these women in contemporary Civil War art. Most of these images tell us very little about the lives of Southern white women during the war, though they tell us a great deal about how white men today choose to depict them or what they hope their customers (white men) will want to purchase. And that is their purpose. They reaffirm an image of women as apolitical and submissive in the presence of men and a world where gender roles have been solidified. Northern women may have pushed for the suffrage, equal pay, and other anti-discrimination laws, but not white Southern women. They have always been content to worship and serve at the altar of men.
I am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website. I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content. The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use. My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful. I was very impressed with the documentary. Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man. Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life. From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.
A few moments stand out. I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation. I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery. His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln. I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.
Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper. Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship. I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge. Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.
Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention. At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln. They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc. It’s all so boring and uninformative. Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog. Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate. It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering. Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy. My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery. After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.” I couldn’t agree more.
All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience. The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.
It’s time for the fourth annual installment of the best in Civil War books and blogs from the past year. This is an opportunity to acknowledge those books that have been both a pleasure to read and which have left me with a great deal to ponder. Once again this list reflects just a fraction of what I’ve read during 2008. Congratulations to the winners.
Best Civil War Blog: Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog. Robert’s site is by far the most intellectually stimulating blog in the Civil War blogosphere. He reminds us that Southern heritage and memory is much bigger and more interesting than the narrow contours of the Lost Cause.
Favorite History Book of 2008: Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracture of America (Scribners).
Best Overall Civil War History: Drew G. Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf).
Best Campaign Study: Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War (Norton).
Best Biography: Rod Andrew, Jr., Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer (University of North Carolina Press).
Best Confederate Study: Joseph T Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (The Free Press).
Best Union Study: Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (University of North Carolina Press).
Best Slavery Study: Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge University Press).
Best Memory Study: Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & the Lost Cause (University of North Carolina Press).
Best Edited Collection: Anthony J. Stanonis, Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South (University of Georgia Press).
Best Social History: Michael D. Pierson, Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans (University of North Carolina Press).
Best Myth Buster: Earl J. Hess, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (University of Kansas Press).
Some good things to look forward to in 2009: Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864; Earl J. Hess, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat; Daniel Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War.