Al Mackey has been posting old CSPAN videos of various Civil War events some of which are quite interesting. I perused the CSPAN archives and came across this session from one of Gary Gallagher’s UVA conferences on the Fredericksburg Campaign from 2002. The session features Gary along with Bob Krick, George Rable, R.E.L. Krick, Bill Bergen and Peter Carmichael.
The panelists discuss books that had then had just recently been published, including David Blight’s Race and Reunion, which was about a year old at the time. There is a wonderful exchange between Bob Krick and Peter about Paul Anderson’s study of Turner Ashby, which is a wonderful book. Anyway, it’s kind of interesting to see how the field has evolved in the past ten years.
On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville and we are already being subjected to a steady stream of interpretive flights of fancy surrounding the significance of Stonewall Jackson’s death.
Although it was not evident at the time, some historians believe Jackson’s death began the ruin of the Confederacy. The Southern disaster at Gettysburg two months later only confirmed the start of the eclipse. “The road to Appomattox [where the war ended] began on [that] Saturday night” at Chancellorsville, James I. Robertson Jr., Jackson’s best biographer, has said. “With his death, the southern confederacy began to die as well.”
“It was just a tragedy for the South,” Robertson said in an interview, “the greatest personal loss that the South suffered in that war . . . a horrible blow.” Civil War scholar Robert K. Krick said: “It’s hard to imagine the war going the way it did with Jackson present.”
I guess it should come as no surprise that Robertson and Krick are leading the way. Upcoming editorials will likely wax poetic about Jackson’s flank attack on May 2 and his final hours at Guinea Station and ignore or run rough shod over the fighting that took place the following day, which was significantly more important. We do love our stories.
While browsing the Museum of the Confederacy’s website I came across this panel discussion from 2002 on the interpretation of Civil War battlefields. I attended this panel, which was held at the University of Richmond. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.
I decided to watch it once again though I was struck by just how much this question of whether we should approach battlefields creatively and broadly has become such a non issue. Ten years later and none of the concerns expressed by the late Jerry Russell and Robert K. Krick have come to pass. Go to any Civil War battlefield and the focus is still on the soldiers and the fighting. The only difference is that in many of these same places visitors have the opportunity to understand more and better. Russell’s and Krick’s emphasis on Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s involvement provided an opportunity to distract the audience from the fact that NPS historians/staff have debated these issues going back to the early twentieth century. The question of whether the causes of the war, the home front, etc. should be interpreted on battlefields is an old one. At one point Russell actually says that any discussion of the cause of the war, regardless of whether the focus is slavery, states rights, etc., is inappropriate on the battlefield. It really is as if the men who fought these bloody battles just fell from the sky. Looking back it is also clear that Krick completely missed the mark. Show me a battlefield that has become a “political platform.”
During the Q&A [1:36:20] John Coski read a question directed to Jerry Russell concerning the proper interpretation of the 9-11 attacks in New York City. I happened to be sitting next to Peter Carmichael, who wrote the question down on an index card provided by event organizers. Jerry held to his guns and suggested that the causes of the attacks should not be discussed in any future museum or interpretive panels at Ground Zero. Thankfully museum interpreters did not listen.
This panel is well worth watching, but it does reflect how far we’ve come. In the end, Dwight Pitcaithley and Ed Ayers were on the right side of history.
Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865
I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs. While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.
The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors. “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.
It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact. This is just another straw man argument. That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences. That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well. I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.
In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful. In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries. That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.
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I think it’s time for Robert K. Krick to get a new angle. How much longer do we have to be subjected to vague references of an “anti-Lee” cabal among academic historians? In 2007 I was asked to respond to a presentation he gave as part of the University of Virginia’s commemoration of “Lee at 200.” In it Krick accused academic historians of intentionally distorting the history of Lee through an embrace of psycho-history and an over reliance on interpretation. It appears that when it comes to Lee: No Interpretation Necessary. If you want to know what Lee believed, just read his own words. It appears little has changed in five years.
This past weekend Krick took part in the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Signature Conference at the Virginia Military Institute. It sounds like it was a huge success, which I am glad to hear. Krick used the opportunity to once again go after his fellow historians. This time, however, he accused them of ignoring Confederate postwar accounts as tainted with Lost Cause mythology. As one example he cited the following:
One “inane strain” of that criticism, he said, holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t really so popular among his troops and Southern citizens at the time. Nonsense, Krick said. He offered a maxim about the writing of history that he called Hamlin’s Razor (a riff on Occam’s Razor): “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or sloth.”
Can someone please name one historian who has recently made such a claim? This is nothing more than a strawman argument. The article does not mention whether Krick had anyone specific in mind and I suspect that he failed to do so. And I don’t know one historian who brushes off postwar accounts as unreliable. What a silly thing to say. The only example Krick could muster was a recent story out of Ohio in which a teacher reprimanded a student for including Confederate sources. Krick wrote to the teacher and we can only hope that this is the end of the story, but it tells us nothing particularly interesting about how historians treat postwar Confederate sources.