It’s nice to see that the latest installment [airs tonight at 9pm] of PBS’s American Experience on Robert E. Lee is getting its fair share of attention. A few months back PBS mailed me a preview copy of the documentary. In fact, I talked with producers of the show about three years ago and even suggested a number of the historians who were utilized as commentators. Of course, I have no idea whether I was influential in their final choice. I’ve read a number of very good newspaper and blog reviews and I tend to agree with the the overall positive consensus. No doubt, the usual suspects will cry foul by accusing the producers of revisionism and political correctness; however, in the end, it’s a solid documentary based on the best scholarship. I could quibble with some minor points, but that would miss the documentary’s target audience. With the official beginning of the sesquicentennial there will be an increased demand for entertaining and serious documentaries and this one sets a high standard.
What I value about this series by American Experience is their commitment to ensuring that their programs are based on the latest scholarship. Today I showed a bit more of the History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” which included commentary from Brian Williams, David Baldacci, and Al Sharpton among others. It was a complete joke. Tonight you will hear from Gary Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, Peter Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, and Emory Thomas. All are talented historians. I don’t have a direct line to the past. Just about everything I can claim to know about the Civil War is from reading the scholarship of others and, in the case of Lee, from reading these historians. In fact, apart from my own research interest, I don’t really know how to engage in historical discourse apart from scholarship that I’ve read.
So, if you have recently been bitten by that Civil War bug sit back and enjoy this documentary and the next time you are in your local bookstore or Online check out one of these titles:
Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee. The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET. Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode. We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.” The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar. The folks at American Experience did a fine job.
The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them. While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS. He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates. In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.” It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.
I just booked my room and registered for this year’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association, which meets in Charlotte, North Carolina from November 4-7. It’s by far my favorite conference of the year as it comes at just the point when I can use a couple of days away from school and it gives me a chance to catch up with good friends. Perhaps I will even be able to check in with the publisher to get an update on my Crater manuscript. The panels are always interesting but I am especially looking forward to one on Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army. I’ve blogged about it here at Civil War Memory over the past year and I can’t say enough good things about it. Not only is it an excellent synthesis of recent scholarship, but Glatthaar’s analysis of key topics such as slavery, morale, discipline, religion and even black Confederates make this volume indispensable. An independent study with one of my students has given me the opportunity to go through it again.
POINTS OF DEPARTURE: REFLECTIONS ON JOSEPH A. GLATTHAAR’S GENERAL LEE’S ARMY
Presiding: John Coski, Museum of the Confederacy
General Lee’s Army and General Lee: How Does Glatthaar Fit into a Contentious Historiography on the Rebel Chieftain? — Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
The High-Water Mark of Social History: The Methodology of Glatthaar’s “General Lee’s Army” — Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College
“They Are One in Reality & All of the Country”: Blending Battlefront and Home Front — Jacqueline Glass Campbell, Francis Marion University
Author’s Response: Joseph A. Glatthaar, University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill
Today I received a student scholarship application from our local Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation. They run an annual essay contest and award three $1,000 scholarships as well as an $8,000 award to the public school, private school, or homeschooled student who authors the essay that is judged to be the best in the state. There is much that I like about the contest. On the one hand the judges seek essays that are “well-written and thoroughly researched” and offer a “rigorous defense of a well-reasoned thesis.” They even make it a point to advise students that it is permissible to criticize Lee and Jackson. Perceptive students may inquire as to why such a point needs to be made at all. Although the contest allows students the widest latitude in formulating a topic and thesis, the foundation does offer some suggestions:
General Lee’s or General Jackson’s heritage and their lives at war and at peace.
Lee’s Christian fervor or Jackson’s religious passion
Jackson’s enigmatic personality or Lee’s dedication to gentlemanly virtues
Lee as President of Washington College or possible changes in the course of the Civil War had Jackson not died so early.
There is a slight bit of tension between the insistence that students think broadly about the topic and feel free to “criticize” and the suggested subjects listed above. They are more than suggested topics; rather, they include a number of implicit assumptions that are deeply rooted in our collective memory of these two individuals.