Friday, December 30, 2011

The Geezer of Gettysburg

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

For the last few weeks, in addition to transcribing the wartime letters of Henry Allen, I have developed something of an obsession with reading about the Battle of Gettysburg. Oh sure, I understand and can discuss most major Civil War battles with some of the best historians in the field, but I have never really delved deep into the nitty-gritty of any one particular scrap. And this I have now set out to do...since Gettysburg is my favorite place to visit, discuss, write about, and analyze - I figured I would go after that one. Yeah...I have plenty of books to choose from - just to get started.

Battles usually come with their own set of legends, and in this case Gettysburg is no different. Being a memory guy, I love legends and all that comes with them. So I will start off my (sure to be many) series of posts about the battle by having a quick look at the battle's most famous civilian: John Burns.  Many who visit the battlefield today learn about Burns, who along with Jennie Wade (the only civilian killed in the battle), number among the civilian notables in what could easily be called the Gettysburg express tourist package.

I just finished reading Harry Pfanz's Gettysburg: The First Day and he included a handy index that tells the Burns story, just in case you have never had the pleasure of hearing it from a hit-and-run Gettysburg tour guide. Burns was well in to his 70s and claimed to be a veteran of the war of 1812. He was, shall we say, incensed by the Rebel invasion of his native state and decided to do something about it - he grabbed his Enfield and went out to meet the advancing foe.

Around noon he arrived at the position of the 150th Pennsylvania near the McPherson farm. Burns discussed fighting alongside the Keystone regiment with the regiment's major and colonel and was eventually given permission - although he was advised to go to the nearby McPherson Woods where he would find shelter from the sun and Rebel bullets.

There he met up with the members of the 7th Wisconsin where he impressed the regiment's colonel by dropping a mounted Confederate with a rifle handed him by the officer. But that's not all. From there he moved on down the line and joined the 24th Michigan - near the eastern edge of the woods. There he was wounded three times.

The Burns legend has grown over time - is it true that he fought in all the places he claimed (or that others claimed)? Did he really kill the Rebel horseman? It is hard to say with certainty - but he did fight on McPherson Ridge and he was wounded.

Burns died in 1872 and is buried next to his wife in Gettysburg's Evergreen Cemetery. If you are ever there - stop by a pay your respects to one ballsy Yankee. And try to remember this little anecdote. It's stories like this that will impress your friends at parties - that will if you hang out with people who are impressed by these types of things.

And by the way - I posted a picture of the Burns monument on my Facebook fan page and on Twitter promising to give a shout out to the first person who could correctly identify the man. I had a couple of simultaneous winners - so hats off to Scott and Eric and an honorable mention to Coni who thought it might be Johnny Appleseed!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Civil Warriors Round Table: A Debriefing

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Those of you who check in regularly to the Speaking Engagements tab will be fully aware that last night I spoke to the Civil Warriors Round Table in the West San Fernando Valley. The topic was Robert E. Lee in the postwar years.  I gave a short talk on Lee's sense of duty, what he did during the years immediately following the war and more importantly, what he didn't do. The talk was followed by a raucous discussion on Lee, Virginia, loyalty, treason, and we even talked about his generalship at Gettysburg for a minute. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and it seems that those in attendance did as well. Mission accomplished.

I will take a second today and stress that everyone with more than a passing interest in the Civil War should attend a local Round Table. These are great venues for some heated debate/ we all know, there is always plenty to talk about. And as we did last night, you will generally hear a wide range of opinion. It's a good thing. If we all thought the same would be pretty boring.

A I would also like to thank novelist David H. Jones - he stopped by last night and brought me a copy of his latest book, Two Brothers: One North, One South. David has given a number of presentations nationwide on the experiences of the Prentiss brothers, the 6th Regiment of Maryland Infantry and the final stage of the Petersburg Campaign in the American Civil War. During three years of research for “Two Brothers: One North, One South”, he ventured into the swamps of Dinwiddie County, Virginia to rediscover the lost location where a pivotal event in the book took place. I look forward to reading Two Brothers and reviewing it right here at Cosmic America!

Thanks again Civil Warriors for a great discussion - I'll see you next month!


Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Return of Henry A. Allen

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A long time ago, I embarked on a little side project that concerned a Confederate Soldier named Henry A. Allen. I came across his papers at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia back in grad school - his wartime letters had no direct bearing on my research but I thought they were interesting so I made copies and tucked them away for a later date.

Allen was a captain in the 9th Virginia Infantry Regiment and was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. He spent the remainder of the war in northern prisons - where he wrote his wife, Sarah, on a regular basis...explaining the goings on of prison life and sending her instructions as to how best conduct their household while he was away.  Long after the war Allen joined a veterans' organization called the Immortal 600. Now, the 600 were some angry ex-Rebs, which is what drew me to Allen in the first place. What happened to him during the war and behind enemy lines that brought out the animosities later in life?

My plan was to present the letters in unedited form online - to make them available to the public. I made a good start until the letters dated after June, 1864 went missing from my files. You can see the letters dated before that by clicking HERE. Well, after relocating Cosmic America HQ this last month, the 1864-65 letters have resurfaced. Thus the project continues! Stay tuned to find out what happens to Allen as the months turn in to years. You might just find a few surprises!

The next step is to edit this collection for publication, which means a few more trips to the archives. Allen was from Portsmouth, Virginia - and strangely...after years of living in the Old Dominion, I never made it there. I suppose a visit is in order.



Monday, November 28, 2011

"A Yankee Metrosexual with Purple Sunglasses"

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

It turns out that Cosmic America has readers from all walks of life, who hold dear all kinds of world views. I discovered this morning that the author of the blog Occidental Dissent has a few issues with yours truly. For those of you not familiar with this blog - its mission seems to be 1) The preservation of western race and culture  against what the author terms a "black run Amerika" and 2) A dedication to a neo-Confederate opposition to anything resembling Yankeedom.

First things first - thanks OD for helping  spread the Cosmic America message - I have a sneaking suspicion that your readers will disagree with me but hey, you never know. For your readers, I just wanted to provide a little biographical information to set the record straight about this whole "Yankee" thing.

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1967. My ancestors were from northern Alabama (Lawrence County) and fought for the Confederacy with the 16th Alabama Infantry and the 27th Georgia Infantry. I moved to California in the 1970s. So - I am not what most people would consider a Yankee, but thanks anyway for the compliment. Oh, and yes...I do sometimes wear purple sunglasses and yes...I have been to Compton many times but have never had my ass kicked.

For my readers, I would like to direct you to the comment section of of the OD post. Wow!! This is quite a display of anger. These guys sort of leave the "Heritage not Hate" groups behind - a loooong way behind. For the record, I have spoken with a lot of people in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Confederate reenactors, and other heritage groups who are appalled by this sort of racist agenda coupled with twenty-first century support for the Confederate cause. I wind up disagreeing with the SCV members on just about everything else, but most (not all...but most) agree that carrying forward virulent racist hatred is a bad idea.

Peace and well wishes (to all)


Sunday, November 27, 2011

21st Century Technology on a Civil War Battlefield

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I never go anywhere without my iPhone. I love it. I really do. I shoot all my videos with it, take all my pictures, post to my blogs, Tweet, and post Facebook updates. And I can't wait for the next one to come out. If the iPhone 5 outdoes the 4 - I will be stoked.

But until then, this little black device is my favorite thing. And can get Civil War battlefield apps for free! Not all battles have one, mind you - but Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg are all currently available through the app store.

These are really handy tools - if you download all the info straight to your iPhone, you don't have to worry about reception when you are on the field. There are maps, videos, interpretive segments, even trivia games.

I could have really used this the last time my wife and I got hopelessly lost at Manassas. Really - it was embarrassing...I mean, I am supposed to be a Civil War historian and I got lost!

Oh well, next time I will be armed with my Manassas app and will find my way around perfectly well.



Friday, November 25, 2011

What is Your First Memory of a Historical Event?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads posted an inquiry the other day that stimulated a lot of discussion. Along the lines of a "where were you when..." sort of question, he recalled the news of President Kennedy's assassination and noted that this was his first memory of historical significance. His post inspired me to roll that notion over in my mind for a minute.

So today I step away from the Civil War in historical memory and throw in my personal memory of some - shall we say - more recent history. The date was August 8, 1974 - I was only seven but I remember clearly as if it were yesterday....Nixon addressing the nation and resigning the presidency, effective the following day at noon. What I remember most were not the details of the scandal leading up to this broadcast, but simply the term "Watergate" and how it had been dominating the media for what seemed like (to a seven-year-old) forever. What I do remember is venting my frustration to my grandmother, the person with whom I usually watched television, explaining (in an Alabama accent that I have long since lost) that "Watergate was the only thing on TV anymore." She, a Nixon supporter, had to agree.

In those days, my favorite shows were Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. I had had enough of Watergate, especially when it preempted my programs. These days, I do not own a TV.

So....tell me, what is your first memory of a historical event?



Thursday, November 10, 2011

Civil Warriors Round Table: A Debriefing

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you all know by now, one of my favorite things to do is attend local talks on the Civil War - and yes...these take place in the Los Angeles area all the time. Last night I hauled my cookies (Coni joined me - for her first Civil War round table) all the way out to the West Valley for the Civil Warriors Round Table - a small and friendly gathering that takes place at a deli once a month. Attendance was a little lighter than usual, but that mattered little  - we got a taste of a artillerist's life in the Army of the told by said artillerist's grandson, David E. Wall.

Wall's talk, "Always in the Middle of Battle: Edward Kiniry and the 1st Illinois Light Artillery," followed his ancestor throughout the western theatre of war - from Forts Henry and Donelson to Atlanta and finally North Carolina. Following the talk, I asked Wall about Kiniry's position on politics and slavery - I found his wartime lack of interest for such matters intriguing - I am wondering if he just didn't record his opinions. I did turn out that after the war Kiniry (a person of Irish descent originally from Manhattan, mind you) tended to promote some degree of racial tolerance. One could assume that the war had made a difference on Kiniry's worldview. At least that is what Wall implied.

Next month, I will be speaking to this group about Robert E. Lee in the years following Appomattox...his public conciliation, his private reflection, his sense of duty, and Lee in public memory. It should be a rousing talk - hope to see you there!



Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's Movember! Men - Time Has Come to Sport a Moustache!

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Digressing from my usual commentary on things that happened during the Civil War era, I thought I would take a minute to let you know about Movember - men around the world are rockin' moustaches to raise awareness for men's health issues - such as prostate and testicular cancer.

No, your town has not suddenly been invaded by hordes of Civil War reenactors, just a bunch of blokes raising money for a good cause. Naturally, an advocate of better living through just being plain healthy, I am on board. I started growing mine  on November 1st - according to the rules - and it is already shaping up nicely. You can bet I will have pictures posted as the month progresses.

If you would like to donate to this glorious cause or even join Team Cosmic America and help raise money (donations go to the Lance Armstrong foundation, LiveSTRONG and the Prostate Cancer Foundation) you can click HERE. I will be forever grateful!

In case you were wondering, the Civil War soldier pictured is Confederate general Robert E. Rodes (killed in action outside of Winchester in September, 1864) He sported a rather tremendous stache indeed. I hope to equal it.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Civil War Lives: a Debriefing

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The article "the" could easily have been added (as pointed out by one scholar in attendance) to the most recent soiree at the Huntington Library in San Marino to confirm that, indeed, the Civil War lives. It most certainly does.

Cosmic America readers by now know that last weekend I attended Civil War Lives: a conference (this time) focusing on biography. A splendid time was had by all. Even my wife, Coni attended - both days, mind you - and got some insight into the wonderful world in which we Civil War historians share.

For those of you who have never attended such a meeting, let me point out that this conference was not an ordinary academic gathering. While those can be a little on the dry side, so to speak, Civil War Lives was nothing of the sort. Yes - a number of the nation's most esteemed Civil War historians gave talks, but the colloquial atmosphere without question made the conference more inviting.

My point: both scholar and lay person would have come away many did. The line up featured - among others - Joan Waugh, Gary Gallagher, Brooks Simpson, David Blight, Carrie Janney, and James McPherson. I will not go in to depth about the talks specifically, but I will point out that such a collection of scholars is rarely assembled for a single conference. We even got some insider jokes...Gallagher noted how he has been a great admirer of McPherson since he was a young boy (commenting on McPherson's advanced age), and one attendant suggested Waugh's attention to questioners' use of microphones and keeping the schedule within the allotted time frames would make for great high school teaching, a point to which all (including Blight) agreed.

Personally, I got to have nice chats with former teachers (Gallagher and Waugh) reconnect with an old graduate school friend (Janney), finally meet a fellow blogger (Simpson) and have lunch with one of my favorite scholars (Blight) who, by the way, I take to task in my own forthcoming book on Civil War veterans.

I did not shoot a lot of video - you can click here to see Gallagher speak on Robert E. Lee's loyalties. Consider this a teaser...keeping in mind that you will need to clear your calendar for next year's conference. Of course I will keep you all posted when I get the dates and other information. Trust me, you will not want to miss it!


PS - Brooks Simpson pointed out on Crossroads that podcasts of all the speakers' talks will be available shortly - for now, Joan Waugh's introductory remarks and Gary Gallagher's talk concerning Robert E. Lee's loyalties are available HERE.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Could You Pick Rutherford B. Hayes Out in a Lineup?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I am sad to say, that unless the lineup looked something like the picture above, most people would be taking a shot in the dark. Why? Is it because Hayes and his contemporaries all sported beards? Or is something more ominous at work?

Months ago I posted a question concerning Americans' lack of historical consciousness. My conclusions were that most do not grasp "history" beyond the immediate past. With this being my general attitude, I arrived at a conversation with my wife a few days ago. Coni - who admittedly answers "Grover Cleveland" to nearly all historical inquiries, suggested that most people could not pick Rutherford Hayes out in a lineup unless said lineup also contained the above...more culturally relevant people (and frogs).

Where has the history gone? I mean....Hayes is a pretty interesting guy (more so than Bret Micheals - I think). But he is sort of lost in a sea of bearded guys who did some stuff during a big war and then went on to be president or something.

Am I being too hasty in my judgement of the American people in general? Maybe I should post the lineup below on all the usual social media sites and see how well people do.

Bon chance!


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Who was George Brinski?

[caption id="attachment_1722" align="alignleft" width="292" caption="Grover Cleveland - managed to avoid military service during the Civil War by hiring a substitute for $150"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, he was no Grover Cleveland, that's for sure. Except....that he sort of was, at least for a few years. George Brinski was a Polish immigrant who had the good fortune of being in the right place when Grover Cleveland needed a substitute to take his spot as a Union soldier in the Civil War. Cleveland paid Brinski $150 for his services and sat the war out safely practicing law in Buffalo, New York.

Hiring a substitute was a common practice during the war - for those that had the means and an aversion to the possibility of getting killed, there were plenty ready and willing to take advantage of others' desire to avoid military service. Of course, there was a stigma attached to this practice, and later in life, Cleveland had to answer to thousands of Union veteran voters who wanted to know why he didn't take his place in the ranks.

But anyway, apart from being listed as Cleveland's substitute, there is not much else out there on Brinski. One little tidbit did materialize through the usual searches - it seems that after the war, when Brinski was convalescing in a soldiers' home, he claimed that Cleveland (then serving his first term as president) had promised him $300, paid him $150 and then reneged on the remaining sum.

Most dismiss this as nonsense...just Brinski trying to cash in on Cleveland's political prominence. As far as we know, Brinski was paid in full for his services. He died shortly after making his claims.

[caption id="attachment_1725" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Coni hearts Grover Cleveland "][/caption]

But on to the fun and games! I promised on Twitter and Facebook that the first person who could answer the question: "who was George Brinski?" correctly would get a shout out on Cosmic America. The winner was none other than my lovely, talented, and ass-kicking wife, Coni Constantine - a real history buff (snicker) who is developing more than a passing interest in Grover Cleveland. Who knew? Check out her Facebook page - fitness is her thing. Have a will find out that she means business.

There were a few who came in a close special thanks to Vienna from California and George from Callander, Scotland for getting close!


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Office Hours: A Few Words on Confederate Slave Owners

Greetings Cosmic Americans - I'm just enjoying life at the Laguna Cliffs Resort in Dana Point!

Perry from Vancouver, British Columbia has had it with all of those "revisionist" historians who insist that Confederates soldiers were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery. He just wants to remind me and other Cosmic America readers that very few Confederates actually owned slaves - so they could not possibly have been fighting for slavery.

Well Perry, your Lost Cause credentials must certainly be in order. Like many former Rebels in the decades following the war, you seem to be trying to distance the Confederate cause from slavery. Not so fast my friend. You didn't need to own slaves to be tied to the institution. Confederates far and wide felt it absolutely necessary to maintain the slavery system, whether they owned slaves or not. Just watch the video.


My friend and fellow blogger Richard McCormick reminded me that Joseph Glatthaar's book General Lee's Army does a nice job of explaining Confederate soldiers' connections to slavery. Thanks Richard!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing Will Beget More Writing

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

This may be one of my favorite Youtube videos. James McPherson - talking about his writing habits. I can't imagine what it must be like to write out entire books in longhand and then type them on an old (once state of the art, to be sure) Olympia typewriter, But hey - whatever works...right?

My Civil War enthusiast readers should definitely enjoy this - but any author will benefit from McPherson's words. I would pay particular attention to what he says about introductions. Words to live by :)



Friday, October 7, 2011

Upcoming Civil War Conference You Will Not Want to Miss

[caption id="attachment_1692" align="alignleft" width="195" caption="Historian David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion and American Oracle will be discussing the work of Bruce Catton"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

If you live in Southern California, or if you are looking for an excuse to head west - you will want to be sure and put this one on your calendar.

On October 21st and 22nd, the Huntington Library in San Marino (right next to Pasadena) will host the much anticipated conference: Civil War Lives, co-convened by Joan Waugh (UCLA) and Gary Gallagher (UVA).

This should be quite the shindig indeed. Speakers include an all-star line up of the some of the country's best historians including James McPherson, David Blight (pictured), Joan Waugh, Caroline Janney, Brenda Stevenson, Brooks Simpson, Alice Fahs, Stephen Cushman, and Gary Gallagher. Prepare yourself for a healthy dose of Civil War history and memory - you will not be disappointed. The icing on the cake? It only costs $25 (money well spent). You can access the Huntington calendar of events by clicking HERE, and there you will find a contact email and phone number for registration.

Naturally, Cosmic America (namely, me) will be there with cameras rolling. So stay tuned for a full report.



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

If Robert E. Lee had a Facebook Page

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Today, just for fun, let's see if the impossible can actually shed a little light on something. I mean...why not? I am home sick with a cold and it is pouring down rain outside.

This past summer, when I was attending the Civil War Institute 2011 conference in Gettysburg, historian Peter Carmichael wondered what Robert E. Lee's Facebook page would have looked like. After stating to the audience (correctly) that they probably were somewhat unfamiliar with the medium, he went on to discuss how on Facebook, you live your life for all the world to see - and that it is all about approval and affirmation.You make a statement...and people can "like" it.

Now - Lee understood that military policy needed the support of the Confederate populace. Without it, the efforts to secure independence would surely fail. So in this regard, a Facebook page would have been entirely helpful. "Should I invade Pennsylvania?" he could ask...and wait a minute or so to see how many of his friends clicked the little thumbs up button.

Of course, this is an utterly ridiculous proposition - but it does make one think about the connections between military policy and the homefront in a democratic republic. Lee understood that his army was the physical manifestation of the will of the Confederate people...and that so long as his army could continue the fight, his country's citizens could hold on to their dreams of independence.

Hey! Guess what. Lee actually does have a Facebook page (in case you were wondering, he has a Twitter account as well). I sent him a friend request - not because I support his efforts, but because I want to click the like button should he ever post anything about surrendering at Appomattox. He has not accepted just yet...maybe he thinks I am a Yankee spy.



Friday, September 30, 2011

What Civil War Battlefield Would You Most Like to Visit?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, I never really thought there was such a thing as a $14 burger and fries. But since I have been going to Go Burger on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood I have changed my tune. And if you are feeling adventurous, they also boast an assortment of "adult" milkshakes - my favorite is made with chocolate and tequila (naturally). And yes I know that eating like this is not particularly good for me (or anyone, for that matter), but I like to indulge from time to time. Whatever, I run marathons.

My question is this: what Civil War battlefield would you most like to visit - and of course, I would like to know why. Mine is Gettysburg. I have spoken about it often here on Cosmic America. To me, that is the best place to get a healthy dose of history and memory all in one. I never miss a chance to to go!


PS - click HERE for a little snippet from my last Gettysburg trip.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Civil War Numbers Game: Counting the Dead

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I recently read an article in the New York Times Disunion series entitled "Recounting the Dead" by J. David Hacker. Hacker concludes that although Civil War history has gone through any number of revisions, the generally agreed upon number of deaths resulting from that war amount to around 650,000.

Until recently.

Hacker illustrates how the death toll has risen to upwards of 750,000...perhaps as high as 850,000. Read the article yourself to find out how all of this came about. I want to talk about what these numbers mean.

It seems strangely perverse that we can throw numbers around like this...without a little explanation. Of course, Civil War literature is full of statements (somewhat cliche these days) such as "more died in the Civil War than all other wars combined" or the ever popular "at [insert battle here] thousands fell in a matter of minutes." Then you have the "bloodiest" scenarios. Bloodiest battle, bloodiest single day, bloodiest three days, bloodiest assault, bloodiest general, bloodiest regiment, etc., etc.

But apart from making modern observers shake their heads in disbelief, what do these numbers and observations tell us? Were nineteenth-century citizens extraordinary  marksmen? Did they care little for human life?  Did they flippantly cast soldiers pell-mell to their inexorable deaths? Not likely.

The staggering loss of life suggests something that so many journalists, historians, buffs, armchair generals, and narrators for the History Channel seem to miss: the citizens of the Union and the Confederacy were deeply and profoundly committed to their respective causes. Citizen soldiers were not fooled, tricked, duped, or hoodwinked. What's more...they knew what they were fighting for. For the most part, they willingly (often enthusiastically) participated in a fight to the finish, despite the mounting casualty figures.

To put things in perspective - let's do a little population comparison to see just how willing nineteenth-century Americans were to put up with such grim and devastating numbers. for the sake of argument, let's also stick with the lower estimation of 650,000 deaths.

The population of the United States in 1860 (that is the whole enchilada...before secession) was roughly 31,500,000 people - and around 4,000,000 of these folks were held in bondage. Based on the laws of higher mathematics, that means that somewhere around 2% of the total 1860 population lost their lives as a result of this war.

Fast forward to 2011. The current population of the United States is roughly 311,000,000...a shade less than ten times the 1860 population. Now...let's just say (again for the sake of argument) that United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan sustained  losses comparable to the combined Union and Confederate armies and navies. That would mean that 6,220,000 United States soldiers, sailors, and Marines would have been killed over the course of the last several years.

I find these statistics sobering to say the least...and doubt quite adamantly that Americans would tolerate such dismal numbers today. The total death toll in Vietnam eventually numbered close to 58,000, and Americans of the 1960s did not stand for it. Today, the media report military deaths on an individual level - and Americans are intensely divided over what such sacrifice means.  I cannot know for certain what would transpire if news of deaths by the thousands appeared nightly on CNN - but I can only imagine Americans taking to the streets in revolutionary fury.

A century and a half span the distance between our current wars, our wars in recent history, and the Civil War era - and I believe many have lost sight of exactly what Americans from both sides of the Potomac were willing to endure between 1861 and 1865. It seems clear that they were far more intensely committed to their respective nations and causes than what is often assumed. And because of this we lose sight of what nation meant to nineteenth-century Americans. The idea that southern soldiers favored regional (state rights, remember?) over national allegiance or that northern soldiers thought little of the concept of Union still holds a pretty tight grasp on both popular and scholarly takes on the war.

One side sought to preserve a nation, one side sought to establish an entirely new one. Of course there were some on both sides who opposed these efforts - opposed the war entirely. But overall, numbers do not lie...especially in a war between two democratic republics. The People of the 1860s supported their causes to the bitter end - enough so that they sustained unparallelled losses.

So next time someone quotes you numbers, whether they be 650,000, 750,000 or 850,000 - you might want to remind them what that actually means.



Monday, September 26, 2011

If You Could Speak with Anyone from the Civil War Era, Who Would It Be?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

It's a question I love to ask - ahhhhhh if only it were possible. Personally, I would love to sit down with U.S. Grant, have a drink (or two) and a cigar, and talk to him about strategy.

How about you - to whom would you speak? What would you discuss?


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sherman's March and the History Channel

[caption id="attachment_1628" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="A pensive Sherman....perhaps thinking about what to burn down next. "][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

It seems that lately I have been unleashing a disproportionate amount of criticism on our old friends at the History Channel. And why shouldn't I? I mean...a channel with all claims to be the go-to network for history airs programming dedicated mostly to truckers, pickers, restorers, pawners and others of their ilk - but little history. And...when there is a program dealing with history - we get this. Sherman's all its predictability.

We get about what we might expect in Sherman's March - a sort of post-Vietnam analysis of an army on a rampage (with a little edged in on Sherman the reluctant liberator). It is pretty dull really - the same old story...Sherman helped bring the South to its knees and in the process invented total war (and the film is poorly acted, by the way...bordering on the ridiculous at times). Now I am not saying that Sherman didn't do his fair share of damage to the glorious South, but the narrative relies heavily on the claims of Sherman himself - making Georgia howl and all, and tends, whether intentionally or not, to sound a bit like the old articles in Confederate Veteran Magazine - you know the ones...those that paint Sherman with the evilest of strokes.

In fact, there is little to nothing in this program that even those with only a slight familiarity with Sherman's March haven't already heard. So let me add in a touch to get you thinking.

Of course, Sherman's March to the Sea - conducted from Atlanta to Savannah Georgia in late 1864 - left behind a swath of destruction, it terrorized those it in its path, and it gave Lincoln Savannah - an important port - as a Christmas present. Then he turned left and raised holy hell in South Carolina - the hotbed of secession. But did his grim work actually damage the Confederate cause as much as we might think? Could the March have hurt the Union war effort? There are scholars who believe that this might be the case.

Did Sherman's invasion of the Georgian hinterland and subsequent march to the Carolinas actually galvanize Confederate civilians? Did Confederate resistance prove effective and prolong the war? Confederate women especially may have been instrumental in supporting and sustaining the war effort during this volatile time - not just passive victims of a ruthless invading host. For an interesting look at the Rebel response to Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas check out Jacqueline Campbell's When Sherman Marched North from the Sea. It might change how you think about the war in the deep South. Then you can write a letter to the History Channel and complain.



I was going to suggest checking out the History Channel website and downloading Sherman's March - but the site is really annoying. I wouldn't want to inflict it on my readers. Instead, you can pick up a copy at Amazon.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cosmic America: Office Hours at Huston's BBQ and Memorial Park in Pasadena

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Yes...I am on a BBQ kick these days so expect a lot of videos from the various joints around LA. It seems I am on a bit of a culture kick as well - go I may shoot a little video in a museum or two - or some other place that is all cultural and stuff (wait a sec...isn't everything cultural??).

Today's question comes from Rob in Pennsylvania - he wants to know how the post war writings of guys like Jubal Early affected the reputation (and how we think about) Confederate general James Longstreet - particularly his actions (or inaction, as it were) on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg.

Well, I love a Gettysburg related question so thanks Rob - and - I have been meaning to head out to Pasadena to check out the Civil War monument there. I hope you liked the backdrop!

And for the rest of you - keep the questions coming! I'll answer them right here at Cosmic America. And if you are in LA, try Hustons. Yes...there is such a thing as good BBQ in Los Angeles.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Eating BBQ Beef - not Goober Peas. I Still Like the Song, Though

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Just because I am interested - tell me your favorite Civil War era song. This is the kind of question I think of at lunch - today I am featuring Phillips BBQ on Crenshaw in LA. And stay tuned...I have a great Office Hours question slated for this weekend!


Monday, September 19, 2011

Tony and Ridley Scott's Gettysburg: The History Channel Gets Gritty

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So I have finally, finally sat down and watched the latest film on the Battle of Gettysburg. Aired by the History Channel way back in May, this film combines traditional narration with some recreations meant to stir the soul. Filmmakers Tony and Ridley Scott promised realistic Civil War combat - and they delivered. This multi-part film following several individuals through three days of battle offers all the blood spewing, bone splintering, skull splitting action that anyone could handle. What's more, viewers can (with the help of computer animation) follow bullets as they speed through the air to do their grim work, witness cannon shot and shell ripping bodies to pieces, and even whisk along electronically with the marvel of telegraph messages. Wow! How about that!!!

Adding credibility to the mix, a coterie of first-rate historians add their two cents to the narration. Edward Ayers, Peter Carmichael, and James McPherson are among the group of scholars weighing in on the many aspects of the battle.

I have checked out the reviews on Gettysburg, and I have turned up just about what one might expect: a host of bloggers picking nits. The biggest complaints: Hardee hats pinned on the wrong side, poured concrete walls in the 19th century, rectangular shaped ANV battle flags - the list goes on, and I will not bore you with the rest.

To be honest, none of those things troubles me in the least - I's a movie people. Get over it. But as this film has grander didactic purposes (as professed by the History Channel), there is one kinda big thing that does bother me.

The notion of "turning point" hangs over this film like an ominous cloud - and this is a point that should indeed be reckoned with. Variously interspersed throughout the film, one gathers that the war - the whole whoopdeedoo - is in the hands of those who make the crucial decisions here on these Pennsylvania fields. And this - both explicitly and implicitly - is ultimately the analytical thrust of Gettysburg.

So while the film is spectacularly successful in the blood and guts department, I give it a C- for analysis. Suggesting that the war hinged on this one battle is nothing more than a case of reading history knowing full well what happened next. In July 1863, while Rebels were devastated by defeat as much as Yankees were elated by victory, the war had yet to be won or lost.

Gettysburg fits neatly into what one could call an "Appomattox Syndrome." It is an easy trap to spring - knowing, as we do, that the Army of Northern Virginia never again boasted pre-Gettysburg victories like those at Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. A steady trajectory toward certain Confederate defeat, then, is what modern viewers expect after July's cinematic fortunes smile on the Union.

It is not, however, what the Confederates expected. There were many more bright spots for the Rebels after the Battle of Gettysburg - and most expected independence would come sooner or later - why else would they fight on for two more years? After all, the (very vocal) war-weary in the North were growing more and more tired of the incessant grind of war...and the casualty lists mounted by the day.

So let's not think that Gettysburg settled things once and for all - those who fought there certainly didn't.



PS - I do not own a TV...and find about 99% of what airs to be completely useless. Thus, I turn to Youtube or streaming Netflix if I absolutely must see something. In the case of Gettysburg, I found it in several parts HERE. Also - I love what they did with Dan Sickles. Yes...I think he was devious too. He is one of my favorite Civil War characters.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bitter Fruits of Bondage by Armstead Robinson

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

There is an interesting story behind the book, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy. Civil War scholar Armstead Robinson passed away in 1995. He had been working on this book for years but never completed it. Since his death, a number of scholars pieced together the manuscript and selected evidence and arguments (from diverse and often conflicting segments) to make this book the best representation of Robinson’s voice as possible.

By the time it was finally published in 2005, Robinson's book was far out of date, even though Edward L. Ayers’s jacket blurb says otherwise. This book is a child of the 1980s – when social historians were searching for the internal divisions that destroyed the Confederate States of America. Their efforts sought to disprove Lost Cause arguments suggesting northern superiority in men and material did the Confederacy in. Had Robinson published his book back then, it would have been a monument in the historiography. As it is now, it is a window into the past, but not useful to advance the understanding or challenge more recent scholarship on why the Confederates lost.

The point of this book is simple enough: The southern way of life was unable to provide the support necessary to sustain a war effort – specifically, slavery sapped nationalism from the very beginning.

Robinson highlights the class tensions between slaveholders and increasingly bitter yeomen and other nonslaveholders. This is a familiar tale (see also William Freehling’s The South vs. The South on internal dissension) of a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders duped everyone else into waging war, and it then became apparent (because of substitutes and 20 slave laws) that the nonslaveholders were fighting to maintain a system that only benefited rich whites – all the while the very same rich whites were weaseling their way out of the army.

Meanwhile, slaves were fleeing to Union lines in great numbers, denying the CSA their labor and handing it over to the US war effort. This served to exacerbate growing tensions between the white classes. Bread riots at home and huge desertion rates suggested that Confederate soldiers and civilians were not behind the war effort – particularly an effort conceived on the premises of a “slaveholders republic.”

Arguing that an internal class conflict eroded the white southern will to sustain a bid for independence is to confront directly the heritage of the Lost Cause Many things: the peculiar configuration of Confederate mobilization, the genesis of popular discontent with the war effort, the failure of agricultural adjustment, the birth of state rights ideology, the halting attempts by Jefferson Davis to cope with rampant internal dissention, the disintegration of Confederate society – all of these stemmed from the Confederacy’s failure to preserve stability on the home front. The Civil War south discovered that it could not sustain wartime slavery and simultaneously retain the allegiance of the nonslaveholding majority – and thus…the Confederacy was destroyed from within.

Now I disagree with this argument entirely – I believe that the overwhelming majority of white southerners supported the cause – despite the grumblings that take place when a society goes to war. They supported independence and slavery - even the nonslaveholders had a stake in the system. But I suggest reading this book – it is a great time capsule of sorts. And although published early in the 21st century…it is a nice window into the historiography of the 1980s.



An Opening Shot - The Civil War Monitor (and Fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl!)

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I hope you like the video - it's all of 20 or so seconds of last night's Hollywood Bowl extravaganza: A Night at the Moulin Rouge. We had a grand time indeed - the Bowl Orchestra delighted us with (among other selections) Gounod's Dance of Phryne from Faust, Gershwin's An American in Paris, and a fireworks finale accompanied by Offenbach's La vie Parisienne. There were can-can dancers and everything!

But on to the matter at hand - a while back I made note of an upcoming Civil War multi-media juggernaut. Well the time has arrived. Introducing: the Civil War Monitor. The Monitor is a new publication - with both print and web components - that is dedicated to the notion of bringing popular and academic history closer together. Imagine that. I am very pleased to have my name listed among the contributors/advisors - really, I am in some good company. The web component - if all goes well - launches next week and the print premier issue should already be arriving at the news stands (I just got my advance copy in the mail yesterday!) any time now. You will be able to access the Monitor website HERE. There should be links available and a phone number to subscribe at an introductory rate. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter - so please....head over and follow them. The multi-media onslaught is just getting started but I expect great things as the Monitor reaches out into the nation and the world.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cosmic America: Office Hours from Joshua Tree National Park

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So here it is - the long awaited return to Office Hours. I have a growing list of questions that I have been saving so be sure and check in all the time - you will get an answer (that you may or may not agree with). For this [caption id="attachment_1586" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Loyal Unionist Joshua Tree inhabitant. "][/caption]episode - I figured that Joshua Tree - completely unrelated to the Civil War - was just too beautiful to take a pass on including it in some sort of video. Thanks Tim for your question on the Emancipation Proclamation! I hope you like the scenery :)

And - I would love your feedback. Office Hours is taking on a bit of a new flavor...with a theme song (Gram Parsons) and an intro video and everything. It's sort of like my own two-minute TV show. Maybe I should pitch it to one of those cable channels. Who knows? The History Channel could use a few shows that dealt with...I don't know....history.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Civil War Institute Conference 2012

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

[caption id="attachment_1579" align="alignright" width="150" caption="I should have a new battlefield hat by 2012"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1577" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="The 2011 CWI crew - I hope to see some familiar faces in 2012! "][/caption]

Well, I have officially signed on to do the CWI Conference this coming June 2012. Just like last year, I will be keeping the world up to date with all the usual social media suspects - so stay tuned - it's almost like being there! In addition, this year I will be part of a panel on (what else?) Civil War blogging with Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin - two first rate historians and expert bloggers. I'll also be leading some discussions concerning Gettysburg. You can bet that I will talk about the battlefield, reconciliation, and Civil War commemoration. Click the tab above for the whole schedule - you will see that I will be in some good company. This is one you will not want to miss - you can get registration information HERE.



Monday, September 5, 2011

What is Your Favorite Civil War Battlefield?

[caption id="attachment_1553" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The Union line on Cemetery Ridge"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I will never miss a chance to go to Gettysburg. I love it there...I really do. And here's why. For a historian who focuses on Civil War memory, Gettysburg is sort of like the remembrance epicenter. Veterans of the war certainly saw it that way - in the decades following the war, they flocked there to walk in their 1863 footsteps, hold reunions, and dedicate monuments.

Former soldiers from both sides emphasized the "turning point" theme - a problematic issue to be sure, but one that they seemed eager to employ in speeches and monument dedications. The overwhelming number of monuments on the field today were dedicated by Union veterans. Reading through the thousands of monument inscriptions leaves one with little doubt that the preservation of Union was paramount. For those who wish to peel back a few layers of Civil War memory, there are many speech transcriptions available in the Gettysburg archives (and elsewhere) that accent emancipation - a cause veterans celebrated with often equal importance.

If you are lucky, you can make the time here to walk out on the battlefield when all the tourists have gone back to their hotels for the evening. I did this very thing back in late June. I managed to find myself all alone on the Union line (at the Pennsylvania monument) shortly after the sun went down. With no other human in sight, I heard a group of visitors off in the distance shouting a few huzzahs. It was a Civil War moment like none other.

The town of Gettysburg is worth the visit as well. Pretty much everything is built around the tourist industry, and it is likely that you will run across a number of people in period dress just walking around. I like to strike up conversations with these folks just to see what they are up to - and to find out what they find most compelling about the Civil War era. You will discover that most are very happy to tell you.

A close second on my list of must-see battlefields is Shiloh. Now this is a completely different experience. The field is much more isolated from civilization, as it were, and there will generally be fewer visitors stomping around...especially if you choose to visit on

[caption id="attachment_1566" align="alignright" width="144" caption="The Alabama monument at Shiloh"][/caption]

a weekday in mid August or something. My advice is to brave the oppressive heat and humidity and have the battlefield pretty much to yourself. At Shiloh I can walk in the footsteps of my own Civil War ancestors who fought with the 16th Alabama infantry (Hardee's Corps). I know of one who was wounded there - Andrew Jackson Holbert. As the family legend goes, having enough of fighting, he walked home to Lawrence Country, Alabama after the battle to nurse his wound. Later he reenlisted (read: conscription caught up to the intrepid private Holbert) and wound up fighting with the 27th Alabama until the end of the war.

[caption id="attachment_1570" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="The Stonewall Jackson monument at Manassas"][/caption]

Of course, I enjoy myself whenever I visit any Civil War battlefield. Antietam and ColdHarbor rank high in my book. Manassas makes the short list too (two battles for the price of one!). Maybe it's because I like getting hopelessly lost for several hours in the Virginia heat with a limited water supply. Or maybe it's because I like the Stonewall equestrian monument - where both Jackson and his horse look like comic book super heroes (this is my wife, Coni's favorite).

I imagine you will have your own reasons for visiting a Civil War battlefield. I just say go whenever you get the chance.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

What If What If What If (the Stonewall Post)

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

And...happy Thursday everyone!!

Now as you all know, I get questions daily via Facebook, Youtube, and especially Twitter. This one comes up frequently enough to merit an entire post. And guess what - I am as thrilled as hell about it because it gives me a chance to pitch in on counterfactual history.

So here you go - I am sure you have heard it too: "What if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg?"

Oh boy. Well, I guess I should start with just a little background. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was known to Lee and all across the Confederacy as a fighter. He was ballsy, tough, and quite often outmaneuvered and out fought his better supplied and manned opponents. 2nd Manassas? Kicked ass. The Valley campaign of 1862? Kicked ass. Fredericksburg? Kicked ass. Chancellorsville? Kicked ass. See what I mean...except there was one little problem.

After Stonewall's 2nd corps, ANV effectively routed the Union 11th corps at Chancellorsville, some dumb asses from North Carolina accidentally shot him and he subsequently died a few days later. Bummer for the Rebs. They lost one of their best guys.

So good ole Robert E. Lee decided to reorganize the 2nd corps in to two new corps, the 2nd - under the command of Richard S. Ewell and the 3rd - under the command of A. P. Hill.

Fast forward to July 1, 1863. Elements of Ewell's 2nd corps beat the shit out of the Union 1st and 11th corps at Gettysburg - pushing them through the town and up the heights (Cemetery Hill) just south of town. Lee's orders to Ewell: Take the heights if practicable.

Well, apparently Ewell didn't think it was practicable because he did not take the heights (or even attempt to) and the Union wound up holding the high ground - a fact that would prove very advantageous for the Union later on.

Many armchair generals across the land have since insisted that if Stonewall had been in command on that day - those heights would have been taken - thus insuring Confederate victory at Gettysburg and quite possibly the war itself. Poor old Richard S. Ewell. That is one hell of a historical burden to have hanging over you.

But here's the thing (counterfactual rant begins now). We have NO WAY of knowing what would have happened. NO WAY. FULL STOP. Jackson could have done a number of things, maybe he would have taken the hill. Could he have held it? Who knows? Hell - maybe he would have been killed, or had dysentery, or fallen off his horse, or anything at all. The point here is that counterfactual history gets us absolutely nowhere. There were an infinite number of possibilities that day with the people who actually fought in the battle. One of them happened. Let's focus on that and give the "what ifs" a break.

Now there are a few historians around (Mark Grimsley and others) who have postulated some sort of counterfactual "theory" that they suggest will actually shed light on what could have really happened given another set of circumstances.

Nonsense. Attaching a bunch of academic claptrap to the musings and suppositions of what boils down to fantasy has even less utility than the simple "what if" questions over beer, peanuts, and Youtube.

At any rate - if you want to talk about Gettysburg, I am all yours. But let's stick to what actually happened - not what could have.



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Was I Up To in 1985?

Greetings Cosmic Americans! friend Julia let me know that the Rockabilly band I played in waaaaaaaay back in 1985 (The Mavericks) was featured on a Youtube video. Just because I like to talk about fun things from time to time, I thought I would post the clip above. So watch and enjoy - we're doing the Sparkletones 1956 hit, Cotton Pickin' Rocker. If you are really interested in the SB 1980s band scene (who isn't?) you can see the whole show on Youtube - the series features lots of other Santa Barbara bands...the show was to help the local celebrities of the time (The Tan) get to England to hit it big. You will see some pretty good hairdos.

[caption id="attachment_1549" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Steve (bass) and I 26 years later - still rockin' at the House of Pies in Los Feliz"][/caption]

But life in 1985 was not all rockabilly stardom for me. At 17 years old I was just as much the Civil War guy as I am today. Back then, I was reading Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac Trilogy. I had a set next to my bed. Now how rockin' is that?



You Ask, I Answer: Comprehensive Exams.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

What do you know?? A few weeks back, I answered a set of questions from a prospective graduate student who was wondering what to expect. The post wound up finding its way all around the academic world - and I suppose has inspired others who have endeavored to take the higher education plunge to issue more questions.

Like I said, I would answer anything that came my way. This latest concerns the qualifying examinations, aka comprehensive exams, aka comps (or...the dreaded comps if you prefer). As always, I will protect the identity of the individual asking the questions - lest someone try to dissuade said person from giving it the "old college try," as it were.

At what point in graduate school do you take your comprehensive exams? How did you prepare for them and what should I expect?

Good questions...and ones that you will surely be asking your classmates as the inevitable draws near. As far as when students take these...I know that different programs schedule their exams at different points. At the University of Virginia history department, we take the exams in the spring of the third year - so we get a lot of time to freak out before we have to stand tall before the faculty.

In terms of preparation, my own experience is probably typical of most history grad students at UVa - those of you out there who read this and disagree...feel free to give me your story. Here's what you will be dealing with in a nutshell - at least if your department is anything like UVa. As an Americanist, I had to contend with pretty much all of American history - divided roughly by the Reconstruction period. For each half, a faculty member of my choosing prepared a series of questions. In addition, my dissertation advisor prepared questions concerning my area of special study (the Civil War era), and in addition to that, the professor who was handling my outside field (West Africa) let me have it too.

So - that's four really smart people who could ask me anything they wanted. Nervous yet? gets worse. In my department, we have both a written and oral component to the exams. The written part takes place over four days (one for each field) - and we get 8 hours each day to write. I wrote close to 100 pages over the four days. The professors can ask you any number of questions. They may give you a choice of questions to answer, or maybe not - that is entirely up to them. You'll be under the gun and have to come up with some pretty lucid prose - so prepare to get a lot of good writing done in very short order.

But the the real fun begins later. The oral exams - a few hours in a room with all four professors on your committee - were for me the most unnerving part of the whole experience. In this section - they ask whatever they want - they may ask you to clarify your written exam, they may ask you to discuss something you didn't write about, they may ask you something completely unexpected.

So - how on earth would one prepare for something like this? I mean....they can ask you anything! Your committee will help a lot by giving you a huge (I mean huge...hundreds of books) reading list - and if you are lucky, you might get a few trial questions for practice.

Step one in preparation: relax. Everyone who has passed comps will tell you the same thing. You have to just calm down about the whole thing. Of course, you won't - but I feel I have to tell you to anyway. Next: be able to talk about the books on your list. Yes...all of them. You have had three years to get to know the literature so you better be able to discuss it by now. Now, you don't necessarily have to read everything cover to cover, but you should know the central arguments and themes of each book. Hint - there are plenty of historiographical articles out there that discuss the major works. Read them carefully. Hint two - keep a good set of notes about each book you are assigned starting on day one of graduate school. You can refer back later and you won't have to scramble at the last minute to figure out what these books were all about. Next: relax some more. Seriously...all this work might make you go around the corner, if you know what I mean.

There are a few other strategies that should serve you well. One - have regular meetings with your peers to discuss the subjects at hand. This exercise will prove invaluable when it comes to test time. Two - ask some senior graduate students about their experiences. Trust me...they will want to share their horror stories. Three - try to anticipate the kinds of questions you might get asked (think thematically). But be careful - it is easy to lull yourself into a false sense of confidence because you trick yourself into thinking that you already have all the questions. I found this out the hard way. I had a few figured out - but certainly not everything. My committee asked me things I would have never expected. It was pretty brutal indeed!

But I will say just once more my ambitious friend - come test time (or close to it), RELAX. Try meditating, try thinking about the big picture, think happy thoughts...and when it is all over and you have passed (I rarely hear of people failing comps - but it does happen from time to time), go have a drink or something. You will need it :)

Bon chance!


Monday, August 29, 2011

Edmund Ruffin - A Man Without a Country

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, he had one for a while anyway. But things didn't quite turn out the way he had hoped

Ruffin was what we could call a fire-eater in every respect of the word. He hated Yankees, supported state rights, and was vehemently pro-slavery.

Before things started heating up that would eventually lead to war, Ruffin made his mark as an agriculturalist - a pretty prominent one, at that. He came from a noted land-owning family, and his talents in the agricultural realm served him well in his pre-war career. In 1833 he founded a journal: The Farmer's Register, which brought agricultural innovations to a wide range of farmers. He also worked diligently to counter soil exhaustion with great success.

But during these years Ruffin became more and more radicalized. By the 1850s, intent on protecting the right to slave property in the South, he became convinced that the slave-holding states would eventually have to secede to protect their property. John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry just added fuel to Ruffin's fire. When Brown was hanged, Ruffin made his way to Charles Town, Virginia to witness the execution (he posed as a VMI cadet at the age of 65 - civilians were not permitted to watch the execution). From here he acquired several of Brown's pikes meant to be used in a slave revolt and sent them to southern governors as a reminder of northern aggression.

But the fun really began for Ruffin in 1861. He somehow found himself in Charlestown, South Carolina on April 12 and joined in with the troops as they initiated the firing on Fort Sumter. He claimed to have fired the first shot himself. Well, we can't really be sure of that, but we do know that he was there when the firing began, so I guess that is close enough.

The collapse of the Confederacy naturally affected Ruffin in profound ways. A man without a country, he committed suicide on June 17, 1865. These days you can hear all kinds of stories about Ruffin - that he stated "I will never live under Yankee rule," or that he wrapped himself in the Confederate flag before doing the deed. Whether true or not, stories seem to romanticize this wiry gray headed secessionist in ways that turn him into a hero of least for neo-Confederates.

We do not hear much else about Ruffin, except that he fired the first and quite possibly the last - self inflicted - shot of the war. He even gets a little placard by his grave. The marker highlights Ruffin's agricultural work and the first shot story, but curiously omits his suicide. Would such an admission of defeat be too much for the modern tourist to handle? I often wonder why they left that little factoid out. It just seems kind of important to me.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Confederate Veterans at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

After years of living Los Angeles - within blocks of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, I thought it would be a good idea to find their Confederate monument. Here, surrounding a modest monument to the soldiers of the Confederate Army, one can find the graves of about 30 Rebel soldiers together with a handful of United Daughters of the Confederacy. From what I understand, each year the Daughters hold a memorial exercise near the monument - I have to find out when it I can show up and record it for posterity. I mean...stuff like this needs to be seen by the rest of the world.

Anyway, when I was looking into this monument this morning, I found out that the Sons of Confederate Veterans had issued a "Heritage Violation" against Hollywood Forever for disallowing the placement of Confederate flags on these Rebel graves. Here is the blog post - attacking those pesky "liberals" and demanding satisfaction. Whatever.

Still, it got me thinking. What exactly is a Heritage Violation and how does one go about getting one? Well, I checked with the Sons of Confederate Veterans General Headquarters website and found out "Any attack upon Confederate Heritage, or the flags, monuments, and symbols which represent it, can be termed a Heritage Violation." Well - I suppose that I need to be careful then. It seems that I may already have committed several of these right here on Cosmic America. Maybe even leaning (as pictured above) on a Rebel monument with such affected nonchalance could be a violation. I'll have to check into it.

My SCV friends will need to report me as soon as possible, according to the rules and regulations - because "The more time which passes between a heritage violation and any SCV response, the less likely we [the UCV]are to be successful in correcting the situation."

If you really feel the need to report me - you can do so by following these instructions. At any rate - I had a good time today checking out how much Los Angeles has to offer in terms of Civil War history - there is more here than you might think. We have a major street named after General Rosecrans and everything! And in the end - my own Confederate ancestors would be thrilled that I live so close to a Rebel monument. I even saw a few Alabama soldiers there!

I also understand the the great city of Pasadena has a Civil War monument. I think that will be my next stop. See you then!


Cosmic America Joins Forces with Wardance Pictures for The Reenactors

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Yesterday I had lunch with Nick and Megan from Wardance Pictures - we went to El Coyote, which as you know by one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles. They make a mean taco and the scratch margarita is the perfect way to kick off the afternoon.

But on to the subject at hand. Nick and Megan are the producers of a documentary (currently in the shooting stages) called The Reenactors - a character driven film that, as the producers say, will get to the heart of what makes these guys tick.

Huzzah my friends - you have taken up quite a challenge. One might think that such an endeavor would be easy - just follow around some guys who dress up like Civil War soldiers on the weekends and see what happens. But I would suggest that The Reenactors is a rather ambitious project. How will we really get to know the essence of reenacting (or reenactors)? Is there a common thread that bonds these guys together? These are the questions I will be asking as I watch this film (due out sometime in 2013). And I will be paying particularly close attention because I have signed on as the historical adviser.

The problem with the portrayal of Civil War reenacting in both popular media and the academic world is that they are often dismissed as being cut from one cloth. Sensationalist History Channel clips are good for ratings, I suppose, and scholars like Glenn Lafantasie - who think that reenactors are "foolish" can certainly kick up a fuss and get a good discussion going.

But should Civil War reenactors be dismissed, written off as foolish, or pigeonholed as wingnuts? Doing so would seem to me to be irresponsible reporting, bad scholarship, or whatever you want to call it. So if the producers of The Reenactors can get beyond that, as they have stated are their intentions, then they will have a success on their hands.

Bon chance!


Friday, August 12, 2011

Literacy in the 1860s

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

It is indeed a great boon to Civil War historians that mid-nineteenth century Americans were - for the most part - a literate society. Census information from 1850 and 1860 suggests that somewhere between 75% and 90% of adult whites were...that's right...literate. Literacy rates were higher in the North, and higher again in urban areas. But in terms of the general population - most white Americans at the beginning of the Civil War could read and write.

Of course, there are degrees of literacy. Reading a tavern sign does not make one a man of letters, as it were...and I have read letters written by people who were just barely hanging on to what we might term "literate." But for the sake of argument, let's just say that we are dealing with a literate society.

This is useful information for two reasons. One: citizens read things - and the technological onslaught of the printing press and the railroad meant that reading materials were disseminated far and every corner of the nation. Newspapers reached millions - and so did books. By 1860, the good people of the United States were pretty up to date on the issues (Uncle Tom's Cabin, anyone?). So - those who supported and enlisted to fight for their respective causes knew what was at stake. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Two: people wrote everything down. Whether in letters home or in diaries and journals, soldiers and civilians recorded their thoughts, their actions, their opinions...what have you. And thus we now have at our disposal a wide range of testimony from all classes, ethnic groups, and so on.

Now that is some pretty good news. Oh sure, it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. I mean, where do you stop? There is so much extant written material that it would be near impossible for an army of historians to ever get through it all. But let's rejoice anyway. Our nineteenth-century friends had the good sense to write down what they thought - it just makes figuring them out a little easier.



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Caning of Charles Sumner

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So imagine you are a member of the United States Congress - pick the Senate or the House of matters not. Now imagine some senator gives a speech that does not sit so well with you. What would you do? I suppose beating that person senseless in the senate chamber is probably out of the question, right? Well, not if it is 1856 - they got to have all the fun!

This is a pretty well-known story but nevertheless, it's something to think about as we all sit around and complain about our own "do-nothing" Congress. These guys did plenty. As the story goes: Sumner had recently delivered a speech on the slavery issue in Kansas - a hot topic to be sure, that could easily get the ire up from either side of the debate. In this speech he named names - which included hurling insults at proponents of the pro-slavery  faction such as South Carolinian Andrew P. Butler. Preston Brooks, Butler's cousin and a congressman from the Palmetto State did not take so kindly to Sumner's insolent remarks.

Now, Brooks could have challenged Sumner to a duel, as some southerners were wont to do. But dueling was for social equals - and Brooks undoubtedly saw Sumner as nothing more than a weak abolitionist Yankee politician...hardly a gentleman of his caliber. (in case you are interested, - this is a great book on dueling) So instead he approached Sumner as he sat at his desk in the senate chamber, informed him of his offenses, and beat him bloody with a cane. He hit him 30 times if he hit him once. Sumner stood up, pulling the bolted chair out of the floor and collapsed covered with blood - the caning put him out of commission for the next several years.

Southerners rejoiced - hailing Brooks as a hero of southern principles. Some even sent him new canes that were inscribed with such phrases as "Hit Him Again." But the caning had perhaps unintended consequences that we might overlook. In ways this event galvanized the North. Many who might have been luke-warm on Sumner or the anti-slavery contingent suddenly saw things in a different light. The northern press portrayed Brooks as a typical southern hothead. In matters of contention, Brooks's actions proved that the proslavery South would do nothing less than resort to violence. Northerners who followed the story could easily concur with this perception - and many thus aligned accordingly.



P.S - I understand that historian Michael Holt (author of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party) does a fantastic recreation of this event, where he plays both roles. I have never seen this personally, but I hear it is quite the show.

The Guilty Cause of the Whole Mischief

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

From our perspective, slavery caused the Civil War. This is more or less apparent to anyone who cares to look at the documentary evidence from the secession crisis. Well, this notion is apparent for most of us anyway. There is of course a contingent among the good citizens of the United States who hold fast to the idea that the war was precipitated by some vague notion of protecting state rights - the blame for secession and the ensuing conflict thus resting squarely on the shoulders of tyrannical northern demagogues intent of preventing southerners from carrying out said rights...whatever they might be.

But the rest of us get it. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, "All knew that this interest [slavery] was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war."

Fine. But over the past years, many of my students and a host of others have been puzzled by a salient notion: the overwhelming number of Union soldiers did not go to war to put an end to this rather conspicuous institution. If slavery threatened to destroy the country, as it seemed to be doing in a hasty fashion, why, in 1861, were northern soldiers not intent on destroying the cause of this mighty scourge? As the detractors of the "slavery as a cause" argument will happily tell you, (most) Yankees set off to war thinking very little of freeing slaves. Could one then conclude that northerners at arms did not believe that the war was over slavery?

This logic is about as convoluted as it gets - yet I hear it all the time (it's right up there with the idea that the war could not have been about slavery because most Confederates did not own any slaves). While it is certainly true that Union soldiers fought overwhelmingly to preserve the nation (see Gary Gallagher's The Union War on this one), they did so knowing full well (or at the very least - perceiving) that a "slavocracy," as they would have called it, was hell bent on destroying the republic. Abolitionists - those who sought to destroy slavery from the very beginning - were a tiny minority. Generally speaking, as the war went on, soldiers saw emancipation as a means to an end - in effect freeing slaves as a crippling blow to the Confederate war effort. Only when the war was over did Union veterans hail emancipation as (one of) the war's great causes. Their celebratory efforts were full of nods to freedom and Union.

But despite the changing nature of how Union soldiers warmed to emancipation, they could certainly tell you what the war was all about. As Union general Carl Schurtz wrote in his memoirs, loyal soldiers of the republic knew all along that slavery was indeed the "guilty cause of the whole mischief."



Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Ever Happened to Cosmic America Office Hours?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Remember a few months back when I used to field questions from all over the world about the Civil War? Oh sure you do. I would put them on Youtube and everything. Well, after a long hiatus I have decided to resurrect Cosmic America Office Hours. 

Once a week I will be picking questions from the many that I receive each week and broadcasting my answers via the usual social media suspects. God I love the Internet.

What's more you ask? Well, I have signed on with a multi-media Civil War juggernaut that - based on what I have seen so far - should be pretty awesome. It is a collaborative expect anything. I am keeping the particulars quiet until launch date - so stay tuned. I will keep you posted.



Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 1st California Regiment at Gettysburg

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Yes, that's right...there was (sort of) a California regiment fighting for the Union cause at Gettysburg. Strangely enough, the regiment was raised by Oregon senator Edward D. Baker and manned by the good citizens of Philadelphia - but in accordance with Baker's wishes, the regiment was designated the 1st California - the only "California" regiment on the field during the battle.

Sadly for Baker, and presumably...Mrs. Baker and other assorted friends and relatives, the senator was killed in the Battle of Ball's Bluff in November 1861. After this incident, the regiment was redesignated the 71st Pennsylvania and eventually folded into the Philadelphia Brigade along with the 69th, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania regiments. The brigade fought with the II Corps and saw heavy fighting throughout the early campaigns of the war.

At Gettysburg, the 71st Penn - aka the California Regiment - was positioned at the now famous "angle" on Cemetery Ridge where it took part in the repulse of the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault on July 3, 1863. I was just there and had to get a picture of the California Regiment monument. As luck would have it, some reenactors were there hammering away at me with trivia questions. They seemed impressed that I had any idea at all about this unusual unit. I didn't tell them that I was indeed from the Golden Coast.

So my friends - next time you are walking the Union line at Gettysburg, give a huzzah! or two for the the California Regiment. You know I did.



Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You Ask, I Answer: Advice for a Prospective Graduate Student

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The other day, I got an email from a prospective graduate student who is in the process of applying to schools, including my alma mater - the University of Virginia. He wanted to know what to expect once he hit the ground (the prospective student shall remain that my colleagues  - one of whom recently described the idea as a suicide mission - don't try and contact him and talk him out of his rather ambitious endeavor).

I answer here in the hope that others might think a little more about what they are getting themselves in to. I will take on - in my own colloquial style - his questions one at a time. Keep in mind that these are my personal experiences and may not necessarily reflect the experiences of all students in grad school. At any rate, the questions are in italics. And best of luck to you, my anonymous friend.

Why did you decide to pursue your Ph. D. in history?

In the abstract, I have been a history guy my entire life...I wanted to talk about it all the time, and so college seemed the logical course to take. For a more tangible reason...I had a lot of questions that were unanswered but did not have the tools necessary to answer them - at least I didn't think so. There is an enormous amount of information out there - both primary and secondary - in libraries, repositories, and on the Internet. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. What on earth was I going to do with it all? How was I going to sort through everything and make sense of it? So I came up with the crazy notion that professional training was the answer.

Can you describe a typical week when school is in session?

I am going to go with year one here - because I found that to be the most challenging. Not to say that things got any easier as I went through the program...there are all sorts of hurdles to cross that will put you through changes (specifically....qualifying examinations). Let's just say that my first year was a sobering one. I like to describe it as an effort to take a sip of water from a fire hose. At UVA, first year Americanists (and this is typical for many programs) take a mandatory series of courses that bury students deep deep deep in the literature. Contextualization is the goal - making historiography make sense, I suppose. But a week goes something like this: you read, then you read, then you read some more, then you get in some reading, and when you are all done - you read some. I was assigned thousands of pages each week. So guess what - prepare to get some reading in. Don't take this lightly. It can be (and was for many of my classmates) overwhelming. Keep in mind also, you will be attending classes, writing papers for this primary course load as well as two other classes each semester. Maybe, if you get a minute, you can meet some of your mates for a beer - so you can talk about the week's reading assignments. Did I mention that you will do a lot of reading? Oh, and one other thing. If you do not have one already, first year graduate students at UVA also write their Master's Thesis.

Do you have an extra job besides your full-time commitment to school?

HAHAHAHAHA - but sadly, yes. Most students are assigned graderships in their first year and then teach sections from then on. I also picked up a little gig at the special collections library to fill my "spare" time and make some extra money (turns out, this was a good thing. I managed to simultaneously do on-the-job research for my MA). The University places limits on how many hours one can work each week - the logic being: you will not get distracted by work and will be able to focus on your studies. The reality is that the few hours permitted to prepare for section discussions or even grade a stack of 120 mid-term essays is entirely unrealistic. Do not expect to get much sleep.

Are you pursuing any research-related opportunities this summer? Is this typical?

Dude, my advice to you is to go to Cabo. But since you are a glutton for punishment - as evidenced by your desire to actually pursue an advanced degree in the humanities given the current state of affairs - you won't. Yes, many students, myself included, seek research opportunities during the summer (and holidays breaks as well). There are plenty of them out there depending on your topic, many are funded...some generously (check out Gilder-Lerhman - they made my life very easy when I was researching for my dissertation).

How did you fulfill the foreign language requirement?

At UVA, Americanists are required to "master" one language, Europeanists need two, and the Classics Department insists that you speak and read everything. You will take a proficiency exam your first year, and a mastery exam your second. I dug deep in to the recesses of my mind to recall high school Spanish and the many conversations I had with Latino friends in Los Angeles. Then I studied my ass off to get verb conjugations right (the Spanish Department lets you use a dictionary, so vocabulary is not really an issue).

How much is intellectual diversity explicitly encouraged in the academic community in general and your class in particular? In what ways are certain points of view discouraged within the academic community?

I am going after you on these questions - I give them a C-. Don't take it personally. After all, you are going to have to develop a think skin. Criticism in grad school can be brutal - from all sides - your advisor (if he or she is any good) will hold you accountable for every word you write, your professors will humble you in ways you cannot yet imagine, and your peers will (or rather, will probably) delight in tearing you a new one, so to speak. In short, your questions make grand assumptions. One, that intellectual diversity is explicitly encouraged and two, certain points of view are discouraged in the academic community. My answer to these problematic questions is concise: you will encounter both, neither, or any combination of the two. All of this depends of any variety of factors...egos, personalities, background, name it. My experience, overall, was very good. My professors encouraged me to follow lines of inquiry as I saw fit - but, and here is the real nugget, they insisted I produce the goods. Not a single professor (some of the most prominent historians in my chosen and outside fields, mind you) ever tolerated sloppy research. Even what I thought was on the money was challenged, criticized, and punched squarely in the face. My advisor once made me cry. It was pathetic. Let's just say I went back to the drawing board more than once. But it made me a better historian. For that I am grateful.

Any general advice you wish someone would have told you when you were applying for admission to this program that you would want prospective students to know?

Yes - everything in your life will suffer for this. Your relationships, your finances, maybe even your physical and mental health. On the other hand, you will meet some smart people, develop lasting friendships, and most importantly, you will come out the other end (hopefully) prepared to place your own stamp on the literature - what some smart-ass grad student will come along and destroy in ten years or so.

Best of luck my friend, and always feel free to seek me out if you need further advice!