Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Confederate Imagery in the 21st Century - Racism? Heritage? Just Plain Fun?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, I am once again happy to sing the praises of Twitter. This wonderful platform has allowed the reach of Cosmic America to extend all over the world - and people are talking. They want to know about the US Civil War...and as it turns out, the war's legacy too.

From the small island of Guernsey, situated smack in the middle of the English Channel, Matt (a computer graphics artist) was wondering about the problematic nature of Confederate imagery in a modern age. Is this simply a harmless nod to heritage, or does Confederate symbolism evoke America's troubling racist past?

Addressing this topic always stirs controversy - which is good I suppose. It gives me something to argue about...and I like to argue.

The Confederate Battle Flag (aka, the St. Andrews Cross) and other Confederate symbols can be used for many reasons, not all of them racist. Some folks like to fly it as a way to say "up yours" to the man. It is a symbol of rebellion, which means if you are trying to rebel against something - your school, your government, your parents, whatever...this could be for you.

It can even be used in a sort of "tongue and cheek" fashion. You know...good natured fun combined with regional pride just letting Yankees know that the good ole boys and girls down South have figured out how to let the colors fly - on bumper stickers t-shirts, and bikinis.

Others belong to the "heritage not hate" crowd. These folks insist that their ancestors who fought under this banner were fighting for their rights and protection of their homeland - an American virtue that should be applauded. They despise the Confederacy being compared to the Third Reich, and rightfully so. Confederates were not Nazis.

But here is the problem. It is hard to separate the Rebel flag from other groups. A-holes like the KKK and Nazi skinheads who drag it out whenever they want to spew hatred and racism aren't doing the heritage not hate group any favors.

But there is another problem - one that is little more complex than the simple expression of base racism. The Confederate soldiers, like it or not, were fighting for a country conceived on the notion of racial superiority. The Confederate cause was founded to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Period. This whole "state rights" thing was really a post war creation.

Now, I know that there are lots of people out there who will disagree with me, but I have discussed this at length on this blog and I believe the evidence speaks for itself. so I will not go in to that right this second.

Confederate imagery is profoundly offensive to a great number of people, despite the context in which it is used. And thus I say to those of you who insist that it is a harmless symbol denoting regional pride - proceed with caution.

I highly recommend a book by John Coski called The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem. He examines the multiple uses of this flag from the Lost Cause period through massive resistance in the 1950s to modern state flag controversies. If you have any further inquiries, this book should set you straight.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Live and Unfiltered: Compromise of 1850 - its in the books!

Thanks to all who watched last night's episode of Cosmic America: Live and Unfiltered. I as suspected, the Compromise of 1850 was a hot as ever. You can watch the recorded version and stay up to date with the streaming course - just in case you missed it live.

A couple of things - I am working on getting some sort of chalkboard or know, for maps and all - or bullet points - or something like that. Also, my 10-15 minute lecture ran over a tad - 17 minutes...what can I say? Once I am on a roll, there's no stoppin' me.

So be sure to tune in every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday night at 8PM PST by clicking HERE.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Cosmic America: Live and Unfiltered and Rescheduled

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

OK - I am totally digging the feedback that I am getting from those of you checking out Live and Unfiltered. So, in response...I have been tweeking things a little. Well, a lot actually.

One of the things I am going to be adjusting is the frequency of shows and the duration of each. There will be more, but shorter episodes of the show every week.

So scrap the whole Monday and Friday thing - and scrap the 30 minute format. Let's face it - nobody has that kind of attention span anyway. Now the show will be on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 8:00PM PST. Each show will be 15 minutes long and focus on one crucial point. I am driving it home kids and doing it 15 minutes at a time.

For those of you on the east coast who think this is too late - fear not. Each episode is recorded so you can watch it whenever. I just posted this week's schedule so click HERE and RSVP!

See you on the Internet!


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Shelby Foote - Historian?

Well, not really.

Now friends, before you let me have it for saying such a thing about America's favorite storyteller, let me just make my case.

I have read nearly everything that Mr. Foote has written. His novels are delightful and well written, particularly Shiloh. And his so-called history, The Civil War: A Narrative is equally well executed. But that's just it - as the title suggests, The Civil War is a narrative - fine. But in terms of rigorous primary research and pointed analysis his magnum opus is wanting.

If anything, The Civil War represents a synthesis of the secondary materials that Foote undoubtedly collected in his study over the years. What is really troubling about this work is his somewhat casual use of the contemporary (of the Civil War era) speaking voice. It seems that much of the primary evidence used to narrate the war existed only in the mind of Foote himself.

So, when he described the carnage of Cold Harbor, to use a very famous example, by quoting a young diarist who wrote his last words on the battlefield: "I am killed," he simply duped his readers. I sure wish that that diary really existed - I could not imagine a more evocative entry in the diary of a mortally wounded soldier on the battlefield than this. But the diary has never surfaced.

Shelby Foote was a wonderful novelist. And his folksy wisdom added charm to Ken Burns's 1990 documentary, The Civil War. You know, I would have loved to have met him on a battlefield to hear him speak in all his anecdotal glory. I am not sure I would have believed anything he said as he stood, telling tales, smoking his pipe and drawing a circle in the dirt with his foot. I would have had a good time though. I can't think of a better storyteller.

Rest in peace, Shelby.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Was The Battle of Gettysburg the Turning Point of the Civil War?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, I got an email today from a Live and Unfiltered fan (student - Mike B.) asking me to clarify something I said about the Battle of Gettysburg.

I mentioned something along the lines of "Gettysburg is not as important as you might think it is." Thanks for the note, Mike - lets see if I can clear things up a bit.

I should have pointed out that I was talking about Gettysburg as the turning point of the war and I should have been more specific by stating that many Americans today think about the battle differently than the people in 1863. I love live streaming video - no edits and at this point it is not interactive. What are ya gonna do? Just have to go with it and clarify later if necessary :)

Analyzing history from the vantage point of the present (as I have warned people not to do), one could surmise that the battle was indeed the turning point. The Confederates never again could claim a decisive victory along the lines of Manassas or Fredericksburg. But the Union victory here was not by any means the stepping off point to guaranteed victory.

The participants and citizens of the respective countries certainly didn't think so. Just read a newspaper from the period. The Confederates, with Lee at the helm the Army of Northern Virginia, still firmly believed that victory was within their grasp. Gettysburg or no. The Union Army was bogged down in Virginia, the Union population at home was growing increasingly weary of the war, and even Abraham Lincoln thought he was going to lose the election of 1864 and perhaps the war along with it.

Sure as shit - the letters home from the Confederate Army indicated that morale was up. I have read them myself...tons of these letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Go there yourself and check them out if you don't believe me.

So all this "High Tide of the Confederacy" stuff is a postwar creation. Sure, the citizens of the North and South thought the battle was important alright, but perhaps for different reasons than many Americans do today.

So if you have any questions you can always shoot me an email at
I promise to answer all.


Black Confederates. Really? REALLY?????

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So - I've been on Youtube again. It's a guilty pleasure, really. Last night was a real kicker. I followed a few video "suggestions" to a series of posts on black Confederate soldiers. There seems to be this warped idea out there that there were thousands and thousands of blacks serving as soldiers in the Confederate army. One estimation claimed as many as 90,000 black people shouldered a musket for the glorious CSA.

You have got to be freakin' kidding me. 90,000?? That is bigger than the whole Army of Northern Virginia at its grandest. Now I am not saying that blacks were absent from the military scene. When the ANV (or any other CS army) went somewhere, they took black people with them. They were - you guessed it - slaves. They did what they were forced to do. Laundry, cooking, felling trees, building fortifications, etc. Slaves were drafted in to Confederate service in others ways too (much to the irritation of their masters). They built fortifications around Atlanta, Richmond and Petersburg, for example. These were the toils of slaves. They were not willingly serving the Confederate cause.

The very idea of this is perverse at best. Imagine - blacks serving a country conceived on the idea of racial inequality and the protection of the "peculiar" institution. Wow. Does that mean that a slave or two may at one time have picked up a musket, maybe - but regiments or even divisions of black soldiers. You think we would have heard of them.

Seriously, I have never seen or heard of a letter written by a Union soldier describing the several regiments of black Confederates he faced in battle. I have never read a newspaper describing black Confederate divisions defending a Rebel position. I am guessing it's because they didn't exist. I mean really, don't you think Ken Burns would have at least said something about this? (Insert Ashokon Farewell theme music here..."Dear Mama - today 90,000 black Reb soldiers marched by...we fear the worst...I have dysentery....blah blah blah.")

Now the prospect of raising limited black troops had crossed a few Rebels' minds. Even Robert E. Lee thought it was a good idea. But nothing of significance ever happened in this regard. Rebels in power decided that if they armed blacks, then what they had been fighting for would have been pretty pointless. Late, late, late in the war CSA Congress finally passed legislation to raise a few black troops as sort of a last ditch effort. And there were reports of a handful of black troops drilling in Richmond early in April 1865. But this was way too little waaaay too late.

Now after the war, some United Confederate Veterans dressed up a few former slaves in Confederate gray and paraded them around, I suppose, to show that the war wasn't about slavery and that blacks were in favor of Confederate independence. Oy.

So if you are trying to prove that black people supported the Confederate war effort just stop. Or better yet, show me some real evidence that these thousands and thousands of black soldiers actually existed. Put them on a map, show me the battle reports, anything. Just saying they were around doesn't make it so - evidence does.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

James "shoulda won in Pennsylvania" Longstreet - oy.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So last night I was checking out Youtube videos featuring the various reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg (don't judge). My favorite part of these vids is the comments section. I love reading the comments from people - mostly Civil War buffs - from all over the world.

A lot of these comments are authored by knot heads, pure and simple. You know - the unreconstructed types screaming and yelling about how we have all been duped by the liberal intelligentsia to believe that the Confederacy was not right. I am kinda glad that these guys don't know where I live - but I have to admit - I get a kick out of reading them...and maybe even stirring the pot a little with my own two cents.

I noticed something else last night that has reinforced my belief in the power of popular culture. It seems that Confederate general James Longstreet is still doing mighty fine. As you probably know, Longstreet toppled from the Confederate pantheon after the war because he dared criticize Robert E. Lee in print. Bad move, hombre. Other former Rebels like Jubal Early made sure to remind the world that you blew it wholesale at Gettysburg and cost the CSA the war (he didn't really - but we can talk about that later).

But it looks like the Shaara novel Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg have revived the spirit and popularity of Old Pete. In short, here's what he wanted to do in Pennsylvania. After a CS victory on July 1, he wanted to move around to the right of the Union army and get between it and Washington City - forcing an engagement on ground of his choosing, insuring a tactical advantage.

Now because of this book and film, a whole lot of folks think that this move would have sealed the deal for Confederate victory and independence. YIKES - not so fast!

We have no way of knowing what would of happened had the Confederate Army disengaged after an early victory at Gettysburg (except that they would probably have lost momentum and been demoralized). So let's just stop with the "if Lee had listened to Longstreet the CSA would have won" nonsense. Why not focus on what really happened, not what might have. The truth is, Longstreet sulked, pouted, and dragged his ass around Gettysburg on July 2, which caused a big problem in terms of Lee's battle plan. Yep, Longstreet showed up late (by several hours) to the party and things didn't go so well for the Army of Northern Virginia.

Now this doesn't mean Confederate defeat was Longstreet's fault like his enemies would have you believe. I'm just sayin'...he wasn't the wise modern soldier who had the war all figured out like these elements of popular culture depict him. Hey - at least he got a statue out of the deal...which looks suspiciously like Tom Berenger. Hmmmmmmmm......


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Who Freed the Slaves?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So - on to the matter at hand. Who freed the slaves? Why that's simple right? It was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator.....right? I mean....right?

Not so fast amigos. As usual, thing can get a little more complicated when you look a little closer at the historical record. Oh sure, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation all right, which technically freed all slaves who were (as of January 1, 1863) living in states currently in rebellion. (NOTE: The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaves in the border states - not to mention...the Rebs were not exactly willing to comply with the proclamation, either). As historians like James McPherson note, the Proclamation was a crucial step in a series of actions taken against the institution. But is there more to the story?

Historians like Barbara Fields and Ira Berlin think so. They talk a lot about what they refer to as "self emancipation." Yep - it's exactly what it sounds like. Slaves, not just sitting around waiting to be freed by northern politicians, simply left. That's it. They saw an opportunity and took it. Seeking freedom for themselves, these men and women walked away from the farms and plantations were they had been held in bondage and fled to Union lines. Many of them ended up in contraband camps (more on these later) and thousands would eventually join Union army USCT Units - all black (led by white officers) regiments of fighting men (more on these guys later too).

Well, I am not really one for either/or questions. Of course there is validity to both bottom up and top down analyses of emancipation. Slaves (now former slaves) took action, and, while the Emancipation Proclamation did not really free anyone on day one, it certainly changed the meaning and direction of the war.

But here's some food for thought for a Saturday morning. What about the United States Army? Don't they get any credit? Robert Gould Shaw, immortalized by the film Glory, said it best when he noted in 1863 (insert affected Boston accent here) after hearing of the Proclamation, that it was all well and good but it really made little difference. Writing his mother - "For my part I can't see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been, there remain no slaves, and the proclamation won't free them where we don't go."

So, while presidential proclamations and self emancipation were significant aspects of the demise of slavery in the South, without the army...nada. Remember - the slaves held in places that saw no pronounced military presence (like Alabama and Texas) remained slaves until the end of the war.

So with that I will sign off until Monday - Please leave a comment whether you agree with me or not. I promise to be nice :)


Friday, October 15, 2010

Know Your Rights!

OK I's the title of a Clash song. But it just sort of popped into my head during this morning's run. It got me to thinking about rights - and then state rights - and then the secession crisis and the war. Really...doesn't everything lead me to think about the Civil War era? (the answer is yes, of course).

So as you probably know, a lot of neo-Confederate and Sons of Confederate Veteran types like to talk about these so-called rights a lot. Indeed - they claim that these rights were what the war was all about. Forget about all that crazy slavery stuff. Slavery as the cause of the war was, I suppose, just the invention of a bunch of wimpy tree hugging college professors. (you know - those who practice the dreaded "revisionist" history).

Well, if you are in line with our Confederate sympathizing friends, you are probably just confused. Now I'm not saying that state rights were not important, they were. But the usurpation of any state right "principle" did not cause the Civil War.

Guess what did. Now brace was slavery. Yep - you might want to write that down and refer to it if you are still confused. You see friends, the Republican party headed by Lincoln knew that they could not interfere with slavery where it already existed, but the territories were a different story. They wanted territories and any states formed from these territories to be reserved for free labor. That means - no slavery. Slave owners could not establish slavery or take their slaves there, no matter what.

Bummer for the slave holders. And they were pretty upset about it, too. They thought Lincoln and his crew were mad abolitionists (they weren't - but more on that later). Now the real problem was a little more complex - remember, all this carrying on about slavery had to do with places outside the South. But slave holders along with most of the rest of white southern society believed that if the Republicans could successfully go after slavery in one place, then it wouldn't be long before they went after it elsewhere. That means the glorious South - and the prospect of total abolition made white people very nervous.

Does secession make a little more sense now? Southern states seceded when the white citizenry perceived an eminent attack on the cornerstone of their society - slavery. That would mean the loss of enormous wealth and the upheaval of their social structure. Whether you believe it or not (you should believe it, because it's true), every white person in the South had a stake in the institution of slavery - and many supported secession to preserve it, no matter what stories the former Rebels came up with after they lost the war.

Now, if you ever run into one of these Johnnies who insist you have been brainwashed by a bunch of revisionists, just ask them to tell you exactly which rights the southern states seceded to protect. They can name any three. Be sure to give them a few minutes to think it over (I mean....come on, let's be fair).


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Do Americans Lack a Historical Consciousness?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Do Americans lack a historical consciousness? Well, I am starting to think so anyway - at least some of them do. Lately, I have been going full throttle with reading, writing, and discussing American history. Why not right? I went to college for a million years, why not do what I was trained to do?

At any rate, I am especially interested in engaging the public - to find out what they know...what they want to know...what they think about US history.

Twitter has been absolutely wonderful for this. Real time conversations with real people! Imagine that!! Who knew just a few short years ago that this would be how we interact?

But here's what I have discovered - people say the darndest things. Oh sure I have had some great conversations with some very knowledgeable folks. But I have also run across a sort of alarming theme. Many Americans have no sense of their own history.

Case in point: I recently stumbled upon an Obama critic who claimed that the president was the "most divisive POTUS in American history."

REALLY??? Let's see, I can think of at least one time in our history when things got just a tad stickier. You know...when Abraham Lincoln was elected, eleven states seceded from the Union, war broke out, and 620,000 people died. I would say that the political climate of the mid-nineteenth century was just a hair more fractious than things today.

The Civil War Preservation Trust suggests that the war is the "central event in America's historical consciousness." Now, I love the CWPT but I think they have missed the mark - at least for those Americans whose historical consciousness extends only as far back as their own lifetime.

Well anyway - I called the Twitter guy out and he just got all angry and defensive. Whatever - choose your battles, right?

So - that's my observation for this morning...Off I go to engage the public. The good news? I am finding more and more forums that discuss history from an informed position. Maybe all is not lost. Huzzah!


PS - if you happen to read this and think I am full of it - let me know! I welcome all comments and criticism. I know....tell me on Twitter :)

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Word or Two about the Premiere of The Birth of a Nation

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In February, 1915, The Clansman, later titled The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles. I want to say just a few words about one: the public reaction and two: how we think about this film today.

Now, if you have been paying attention, you know that the film is as racist as it can be. For example, there are scenes depicting shoeless black people dancing, eating chicken, and leering at white women while serving in the South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction. If that's not enough - there are plenty of scenes of blacks lusting after white women (who have to kill themselves to avoid being raped).

By our standards, this film is an easy target. But the usual analysis by film historians is pretty flat. It goes something like this: Yes - the film is racist but innovative at the same time. Griffith set the bar for future film makers...blah blah blah. How much longer are film scholars going to keep blathering on about the same old stuff?

Scholars of Civil War history have looked at this film too. Some of them (myself NOT included) have noted that the film was met across the (white) nation with a sort of general acceptance. White people (North and South) in 1915 seemed to agree that Reconstruction was a bad deal for the South and that blacks should have been kept in their places. Thus these white people could relate to the "heroic" KKK in the film's climax.

One reviewer at the 1915 LA premiere made a note of it. The audience applauded at scenes of whites triumphing over blacks attempting to assert their rights.

As modern observers, we have a tendency to recognize the widespread racism existing in 1915 and believe that most white people would get on board with the film's message. After all - The Birth of a Nation was a tremendous success all over the country - not just in the South.

But that may not be exactly right. Sure, white northerners were certainly racists by our standards but that didn't mean they supported the Confederate cause or the white South after the fact. Only 50 years earlier loyal citizens of the United States had fought a war to suppress a rebellion and the degeneration of law and order that the Confederate cause had represented. A film about mob rule was not necessarily a welcome thing. And just to add fuel to the fire, some of these guys who had shouldered muskets for the Union were still around to vent their anger!

And their legacy was still around too. Members of Union veterans' organizations like the GAR made sure that US citizens knew what that war had been about. And they were not about to let a Confederate interpretation take hold that easily.

Stick around friends - I'll be back to talk more about this as my research progresses.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Party Schmarty - The National Union Party

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The other day I was talking with a friend about the various political party systems in US history (by the way - the founders were not particularly fond of parties). I got to thinking...this party stuff can get confusing.

Let's have a look at the 1850s for example. You couldn't swing a dead cat around without hitting a political party. There were the Whigs - not much longer for the world but hanging around nevertheless. Then there were the Democrats - split along sectional lines into northern and southern contingents - over slavery of course. And let's not forget about the Free Soil Party - aka the Republicans...political newcomers in the 1850s but destined to make quite a splash. Even the Know Nothing Party and the Constitutional Unionists deserve a mention, despite their failure to ever really get anywhere.

So in the midst of all this partying the country sort of erupted into the greatest conflagration seen on this continent before or since. You guessed it kids - the Civil War.

Well, the Confederacy didn't really have political parties. You were either for Jeff Davis or you hated him. And there were plenty of both running around. One might imagine some sort of party system forming had the CSA lived to set one up.

Parties were alive and well in the Union. It boiled down to these basics: Republicans on one side and a kind of sketchy Democratic Party on the other, an uneasy coalition with some in favor of continuing the war and others vehemently opposed to it.

So, you might ask.....what was this National Union Party that formed in the middle of the war? The presidential election of 1864 saw the victory of a party that nobody even really talks about anymore...headed by none other than Abraham Lincoln himself.

BUT WAIT!! Wasn't honest Abe the poster child for the Republicans? Well, it turns out, the National Union Party was a clever idea cooked up by the GOP. Forming a new party without any clear association with either old party (not really - but it sounded good...) allowed for the construction of a much stronger coalition of those who favored carrying the war to Union victory. In a sense, it was tantamount to war Democrats joining forces with Republicans (Andrew Johnson, anyone?) and soundly defeating Democratic contender George McClellan.

Little Mac, former Army of the Potomac commander and arguably the most cautious man in the world, had other ideas about the war. Oh sure, he liked the Union well enough, but may very well have settled it on terms pretty much putting the Old Union right back in place.

Well I for one am glad things worked out the way they did (and so did about 3 million slaves).

So let's review. Lincoln and his crew put aside party for party's sake and actually worked with one-time political opponents to get something done - and what they got done helped a lot when it came to saving the Union.

Comments welcome,