Monday, January 31, 2011

Rebels in the National Statuary Hall Collection

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A while back, a Twitter friend  @ZebulonPike1813 sent me a note expressing his concern over the placement of former Rebels in the National Statuary Hall and asked for my thoughts. Well - it has been a long time coming but here you go.

It seems that we have a few Rebel traitors on display. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph Wheeler all turned their backs on the United States and served the Confederacy and now they represent their states in the National Statuary Hall Collection. I am not surprised - there are those who claim that they have no place in this hall of honor. And you know what....maybe these people are right.

But here is where things get a little more complex. The reasons why these individuals are represented at a national shrine tell us quite a bit about the country's history. Davis, Lee, Wheeler (and other Rebs such as Wade Hampton) were all donated in the 1920s and 1930s - decades emblematic in some ways for a national commitment to reconciliation and unity. Now this doesn't mean the nation had forgotten the issues of the war years as some scholars might suggest, but at least a lot of state and national leaders wanted to project a spirit of harmony.

So I say leave them there - but understand how they got there. I am not in favor of removing any statue or monument depicting Confederates or their cause - simply because we can learn from them. The same goes for the naming of US military installations such as Forts Bragg and Hood - I do not believe that any new forts will be named for Rebels...but the ones that were came into being for a very specific reason: to promote national unity...for better or worse.

My suggestion is to look deeper into the meaning behind the statues instead of removing them - the timing of their placement and the event itself. Surely some folks had plenty to say when these monuments were installed.

I am quite sure that there will be some disagreement here and trust me...I am not in favor of promoting the celebration of Rebels who fought to preserve slavery. I am very concerned, however, in understanding why Americans commemorate the way they do...I seek the intentions - the actions - and the reactions...and then write it all down. Maybe I can get to the bottom of this whole reconciliation thing one of these days...stay tuned. I've got a book coming out on the subject.



Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Civil War Moment

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Way back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA, my Civil War professor - Joan Waugh - spoke a lot about what she called the Civil War moment.

The moment, she described, was the exact instant when you made a personal connection with the war - when the whole thing became clear to you...what it was all about - the cost, the consequences, etc.

In all honesty, I didn't think much of it. It all sounded pretty weird to me...I mean - I have a long list of ancestors who fought in the war, I had been to a number of battlefields...and nothing - no "moment." it was all just history. Fascinating yes, but no connection.

And then it happened. I was conducting research for my masters thesis my first year at UVA at the old special collections department in the Alderman library (before they built the fancy schmancy new one) and I came across a collection of Civil War letters buried in a long-forgotten collection of family papers. They didn't really have much bearing on my work but I thought they were interesting so i read them anyway.

I won't get in to too much detail, but I will say that they were letters written by a Confederate cavalry officer to his wife in Virginia.. He talked about the usual stuff - how much he missed seeing her, their children, the general goings on at their farm, and mundane stories of life in the military. He wrote his wife often and I got to know him and his family.

And then on September 17th, 1862, the letters stopped. I looked through the files thinking that I had missed something...somewhere. But what I found instead was a bundle of condolence letters from the soldier's comrades - expressing their sorrow for the loss of their friend, and hoping that his widow would make it through her grief.

The soldier had been killed leading a cavalry charge at Antietam - I had never heard of him before I discovered his letters, and I certainly did not agree with the cause for which he fought. But it occurred to me that soldiers and events in this war were more than paintings hung on museum walls...or distant stories long past. They were people. People with hopes and aspirations and plans for the future. People with families who missed them and mourned their loss. People not so unlike myself.

This was my Civil War moment - what was yours?



Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant's Slave

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you all know (because I talk about it incessantly) I am a big fan of Civil War message boards, discussion forums, Youtube comment sections, and the like. One of the persistent themes on the various outlets - usually emanating for the neo-Confederate camp, is that the war had nothing to do with slavery...that the institution was somehow - incidental to the conflict. The usual tidbit of evidence cited in support of this claim is that most Confederates did not own slaves.

Well - I have addressed that somewhat problematic contention ad nauseum so I see no need to repeat myself here. But another thread runs through the argument as well - that some people owned slaves and nevertheless sided with the Union. Even U. S. Grant owned slaves, they the war could not possibly have been about slavery!

Well let's take a step back and look at that for a sec. Yes, U. S. Grant at one point is his life owned a slave - one William Jones, who was acquired from Grant's father-in-law in the 1850s. Soon after, Grant signed the paperwork and gave Jones his freedom. That's the end of Grant's dealing with the institution.

Now I am not apologizing for Grant or patting him on the back for releasing Jones. I am illustrating a bigger point. Of course some people who lived in the North or sided with the Union had at one point owned slaves. The United States of America was a slave-holding country until 1865. But singling out an individual one-time slaveholder who fought to preserve the Union as evidence that the war was not about slavery is what I would call bad history.

The funny thing is, if you want to "prove" something in this way it's pretty easy. Step one - come up with an argument before you ever look at any evidence. Step two - go back into the historical record and find a couple of examples illustrating your argument and viola! You have done it.

Except writing history doesn't really work that way. Using this method you can support almost anything. My advice to those who still hang on to the old slavery-not-the-cause stuff: Go back and look at all the evidence (or as much as you can) before you draw any conclusions. I'll bet you will see some patterns emerge. Patterns such as widespread concern over the future of the institution of slavery - something that drove eleven southern states to secede.

Then get back to me. If you still think the war was about something else, we can talk.



Friday, January 28, 2011

Thank You Thank You Thank You

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, you all know that my wife Coni is running the Miami Marathon for the ASPCA THIS Sunday - I you also know that we have been raising money. Well - thanks to the generosity of all our friends we have reached our goal!!

Yes - we have raised over $3400 for the ASPCA as of today - an I wanted to say thank you.

My friends - you have done a wonderful thing and both Coni and myself will be forever grateful - it is a good thing to have friends yes??

Of course, you can still donate - there is nothing wrong wth surpassing a goal, right? All you need to do is click HERE. And thanks again - you guys RULE :)



Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why the East?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I know there are of lot of people out there who are going to disagree with me - but let me just say a few words on why I think the Eastern theater was the most important in the Civil War.

In terms of Confederate victory - what more than a few people were concerned with on both sides...the Rebs had the best chance in the East. Lee knew it. Davis knew it. Lincoln knew it. Grant knew it.

The East - for those of you who may not be familiar with Civil War theaters, was pretty much the northern part of Virginia down to Richmond and eventually Petersburg - and for a minute in 1862 and again in 1863, a little piece of Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. The Western theater was pretty much everything else - unless you count the trans-Mississippi. And lets be honest...nothing much happened there (attack from Texans and Arkansans in 3...2...1).

So why is a relatively tiny geographical section of the war more important. Well....lets see. 1) Both national capitals were in the East - something that military strategists tend to think about. 2) Robert E. Lee was in the East - the only Rebel general who fought and won on a regular basis. 3) (related to 2) All of the major Confederate victories were in the East - trust me, both sides noticed this. and 4) When U.S. Grant was promoted to commander of all the Union armies, where did go? East. Why? Because it was the place to be.

So go ahead - let me have it...I know you will (and I welcome the dialog, really). But I think that there is a reason why most consider the surrender at Appomattox the end of the war (it wasn't).



Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Featured Blog O' the Week: Dead Confederates

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you know...I am always on the lookout for the very best Civil War blogs out there. I do this for three reasons 1) so I can read them (duh) 2) so I can add them to my ever-growing blog roll and 3) so I can share my favorites with Cosmic America readers in a little more detail.

Dead Confederates, deftly authored by Andy Hall is among the best. Just today I read a wonderful piece on the ongoing search for  Black Confederates. Stop by and visit this comprehensive blog - you are quite certain to find many things of interest...some of the topics may even move you to comment, which I also suggest...just because I like that sort of thing.

What I appreciate most about Dead Confederates is the author's candor. I figure I will let him speak for himself in this case:

"I have no use for the Lost Cause. I grew up with it; I learned early on that Grant was a drunk, and Sherman was a monster. The pervasiveness of slavery, which tainted all, was rarely discussed. We were never actually defeated, I was told; “they starved us out.” I don’t think my late-20th-century family actually bought into this foolishness much, but felt obligated to pass it along, as it had been to them. But in my family, at least, it ends with me. There’s far too much good history out there to ignore for the sake of romanticism and hagiography. This blog is my attempt to explore that conflict and its legacy. I hope that readers will not confuse my general irreverence with a lack of seriousness. That would be a mistake, because the Civil War is the most horrific event that’s occurred in this nation’s history. This blog exists as much to clarify my own thinking as it is to inform others, and if my writing here seems muddled and even contradictory at times, that’s because my own thinking on the war — and my own Southern heritage — is a work in progress. As much as anything else, this blog is a chronicle of that process."

So there you go. One of the best in a growing list of excellent resources available to the of charge.



Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Spangler's Spring, Gettysburg, and the Business of Reconciliation

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I was going through some files today and found a folder filed under "great stuff that did not make it into the book" (yes...that is really the title of the folder). In this folder was a wealth of information on the legend of Spangler's Spring - at Gettysburg - and how it works as a part of a very old business...making sure that reconciliation is the story that park visitors get. I know things are changing at Gettysburg, and I have not been in a few years - but this file dates back to 2005. I'll have to see what has happened when I visit this June. At any rate - here's the skinny from waaaaaaay back then.

Located near Culp’s hill on the Gettysburg battlefield in Adams County, Pennsylvania, Spangler’s Spring serves as a popular tourist attraction for millions of annual visitors. Along with many notable sites at the Gettysburg National Military Park, including the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, The Eternal Light Peace Memorial, Little Round Top, and Devil’s Den, the relatively diminutive Spangler’s Spring monument ranks among the most frequently visited.  In early July 1863, the Confederate and Union armies converged on the Gettysburg area to fight the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. On the first day of battle, July 1st, the Union XII Corp occupied the meadow that included the spring and constructed earthworks on a knoll north of the spring site. Although most soldiers in the XII Corps were subsequently placed farther east on the Federal line of battle, and the immediate area was occupied by few Union soldiers, artillery placed on a nearby hill overlooked the meadow and worked as an effective daytime deterrent during against advancing Confederates. After nightfall on July 2nd, Confederate units from Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina under the Command of Brigadier General George Steuart advanced under the cover of darkness toward the near abandoned earthworks. Within moments, the Confederates made contact with northern skirmishers and Union reinforcements were deployed to check the Confederates’ forward movement. Although Rebel soldiers initially repulsed the Yankee counterattack and occupied the ground, shortly before sunrise the next morning Union troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania proceeded to retake the meadow. Casualties were heavy on both sides – for some regiments as much as fifty percent. Suffice to say, over the course of three days, the area surrounding this tiny spring was hotly contested ground.

Shortly after the battle, a legend began to develop regarding Spangler’s Spring. It had been a well-known watering hole for both residents and their animals for years. Naturally, during the battle, it served a similar purpose. Union troops had used the spring to quench their thirst before being moved to other parts of the line; Confederates had filled their canteens there before finally being pushed back by counterattacking Federals. Although this area witnessed undeniably brutal fighting, a persistent legend suggests enemies came together here in a moment of peace. According to widely circulated stories, soldiers called a temporary truce and came together to drink and exchange cordial greetings. While the use of the spring by opposing armies was well documented, there is no contemporary testimony that proves any peaceful episode ever transpired. Yet the story is nevertheless significant. As the legend grew and became entrenched in Gettysburg folklore, it became symbolic of the broader movement for national reconciliation and an enduring testament to the camaraderie of American soldiers of all sections.

The exact origin of the spring story is difficult to pinpoint. Numerous personal accounts had circulated before the first large scale Blue-Gray Reunion at Gettysburg took place. One of the earliest published depictions of the spring story appears in an 1870 New York Times article, and suggests the spring was were northern and southern soldiers “enjoyed themselves in a rational manner.” Also, while the story was passed around through the ranks of veterans’ organizations and written about regularly in the early twentieth century, it is nearly impossible to determine the degree to which the story was accepted as truth.

Whether veterans accepted the stories or wrote them off to reconciliationist folly, the events of 1913 solidified reconciliation in the eyes of much of the public and the spring story flourished. By the 1920s and 1930s, articles specifically perpetuating the legend appeared with great frequency in the press, particularly during important anniversary dates. The sixtieth anniversary of the battle saw former enemies celebrating reconciliation at the spring with “ a special luncheon for 500 veterans” designed to recreate the legend for the old soldiers in attendance. “The old veterans appeared in a reminiscent mood,” suggested another reporter, “wearers of the Blue and the Gray gathered at Spangler’s Spring, which had refreshed them during a temporary lull in the fighting three score years ago. They marched about the spring, arm in arm in high glee, to the tune of ‘When Johnnie Comes Marching Home.’”

Others suggested a trip to Gettysburg could add to one’s sense of patriotism and illustrated sectional ties as part of the national spirit through the spring story. “Spangler’s Spring,” one reporter pointed out, was “where the wounded of both sides gathered in amity on the night of the second day of the fight.” Although this story somewhat varies from older versions that failed to mention injured soldiers, it nevertheless supports the idea of a unified national culture through the bonding of former enemies. This overarching concern with nationalism and patriotic observance that infused editorials celebrating the significance of the battlefield as a shrine to sectional reconciliation appeared frequently around the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle. Articles that featured recreations of heroic battlefield actions, where the last surviving veterans, many over 100 years of age, donned their old uniforms and re-formed once threatening ranks, included as a particular point of interest the camaraderie of soldiers. The spring story once again reinforced ideas that northerners and southerners alike were essentially Americans at heart and, given the chance, would prefer peace and reconciliation to sectional difference and hostility. The “greatest battle of the Civil War” was also remembered as a time where “both sides filled their canteens” during a peaceful moment.

Today, tourists can enlist the services of a personal licensed battlefield guide to learn the story of the spring. Many of these national park employees and other amateur guides hired through the Gettysburg Civic Center support the reconciliationist version of the battle, illustrating the courage and determination of the fighting man while at the same time supporting the idea that all Americans, northern and southern, share the same national culture. Robert E. Lee is particularly venerated by many of these guides as having joined the seceding Confederacy only reluctantly, vowing to never draw his sword against his native state of Virginia. Guides are often quick to point out that Lee worked harder than anyone to reunify the country during the postwar years. Reconciliation stories form an important part of many tour guides’ park interpretations. Some, especially if it suits the requests of a paying customer, highlight episodes of peace both during and after the battle including the 1913 Blue-Gray reunion, the lighting of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial in 1938, and, of course, the legend of Spangler’s Spring.  While similar to GNMP officials, the Gettysburg Civic Center recognizes the spring story as merely legend. Still, Civic Center representatives play a role in the story’s persistence. Guides, recommended through the Civic Center, are hired who specifically convey, for a fee, the legend and reconciliationist interpretations of the significance of Spangler’s Spring.

It is no surprise that books, postcards, magazines, and newspaper articles featured numerous photographs of veterans, dignitaries, and tourists from both North and South standing next to the spring. This is particularly evident when events geared to foster reconciliation took place at the battlefield. Like many other tales and legends, it did not take long for this story to materialize in venues where commercial profit was the primary objective. Today, this has multiplied exponentially. Entire industries, from souvenir shops to ghost tours, have developed along reconciliatory lines and incorporated the spring legend into their moneymaking ventures.  The persistence of the spring legend, despite the fact that most understand it to be false, illustrates the power of folklore when linked to the marketplace. The very fact that the spring story stands out among so many tales of fraternization among wartime enemies rests firmly on Gettysburg’s significance in the national narrative and its viability as a center for consumer culture. Gettysburg is a shrine not only to patriotism, reconciliation, and the virtues of soldiers, but to the marketplace.

So - go see for yourself. I would love to know what YOU think!



Monday, January 24, 2011

One Dollar

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well....Coni's Marathon for the ASPCA coming up THIS WEEKEND and she is super stoked to be running for such a great cause.

And I would like to thank everyone who has donated so far! But we still have not reached our goal - so let me ask you again.

ONE DOLLAR. Surely you have one dollar to donate to our cat and dog friends. Just a dollar! Look in your couch, or in the ashtray of you car or wherever you might keep four quarters laying around.

Seriously. I have nearly 3,000 Twitter followers and over 2,000 Facebook friends. If half of you gave a buck we would more than cover our goal. It is super easy to donate and only takes a second. Plus - any donation is tax deductible.

All you have to do is click HERE.

Thanks in advance!


Robert E. Lee's Other Horse

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I feel bad for Lucy Long. Who is that, you ask?? Well - allow me to tell you. Lucy Long was Robert E. Lee's primary back-up horse.

But she doesn't get the respect she deserves. That all goes to Lee's most famous horse, Traveller, Oh sure, he was a sturdy fellow...16 hands high and eleven hundred pounds to be exact. In 1859, when he was a colt, he won first prize in a horse competition in Lewisburg. Virginia. He is featured in all the famous paintings and pictures of Lee on horseback, on all the monuments - some of the most well known being in Richmond and Gettysburg. Hell - there is even a book about the Civil War from Traveller's perspective. I kid you not. In Traveller, Lee's trusty mount narrates his wartime adventures to a cat in his retired master's horse dialect, of course.

But what about poor Lucy Long? No pictures, no famous stories, no monuments, no books.

I did a little poking around and managed to find out a few things. Through the usual channels (i.e. wiki) I found out that Lucy Long was a brown mare and the number two horse who stayed with the Lee family until she died at the age of 34.

Further poking around yielded a tad more information. Volumes XVIII and XIX of the Southern Historical Society Papers (1890-91) discuss Lucy Long in more detail. I quote: "Lucy Long was a present to General Lee from General J.E.B. Stuart in 1862, when the former was conducting the Sharpsburg campaign. She was a low, easy moving, and quite sorrel mare." Continuing on..."she was low, and easy to mount, and her gaits were easy. General Lee rode her quite constantly until toward the close of the war, when she was found to be in foal and sent to the rear."

But that's about all I got - not even a picture. The closest I have come to an image is the brief cameo in the film Gettysburg...but that's it. So if anybody has a picture of Lucy Long - please send it my way! It is time to resurrect the popularity of the number two horse. Maybe a monument in Richmond is in order.



Sunday, January 23, 2011

James McPherson, Slavery, State Rights, and Youtube

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I love love love Youtube. Why?? - because you can access all of these wonderful videos for free. I thought I would highlight this one featuring James McPherson because it was short and to the point. He quickly discusses why former Confederates moved away from the slavery cause and toward the state rights cause once the war had been lost.

What I really love is the comment section. Here you have a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Princeton professor and author of The Battle Cry of Freedom, Antietam: The Crossroads of Freedom, and a number of other books - who some knothead dismisses as an "idiot" because...well, I am not quite sure why. The individual in question is not that coherent.

You know...there are all kinds of people out there who can anonymously shoot their mouth off about whatever they want - no matter how asinine. I suggest heading over to Youtube and checking some of them out. You can pretty much search for any Civil War related topic and something interesting will come up - just be warned that what you say may get some pretty hostile responses. Seriously. I can attest to the crazy factor from experience. I have been called a number of things - from a Yankee liar to...well...much worse.

Whatever - I have decided that knotheads will be knotheads. I do not take the hostility personally (bitter...table for one??). Hehehe

As always, peace,


Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Civil War Historian/Civil War Buff Nexus

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The other day, I tweeted what I thought would be a sort of "throw it out there and see what happens" tweet. My command, if you will: Civil War historians and buffs unite!!

I got the most intriguing response from my Twitter friend @josephaswanson. A straight forward question, really...he asked: is there a middle ground between the two, and if so, what is it called?

That is such an excellent question and one that I thought deserved a little attention. For starters - my a credentialed Civil War historian (meaning: I have a lot of fancy pieces of paper hanging in my office and some people call me "Dr. Harris"). I think that scholars have a tendency to sort of look at so-called "buffs" or rather, those to whom popular history appeals, with a sense of superiority. Now this is not true of all scholars, so don't get the wrong idea. But I have run across many who speak of buffs in a dismissive tone. This is a very bad idea. Very bad indeed.

Here is the situation as I see it. 1) Civil War buffs and historians have an unquenchable thirst for war history. I think that point is well established. 2) A whole lot of Civil War era scholars publish books loaded down with esoteric language and academic jargon, which are thus inaccessible to the majority of the population. 3) Both groups tend to be insular. One seeing the other as either "drums and bugles" or academic claptrap.

But Joseph asks: what is the middle ground? I think the answer is apparent. Social media provide the platforms through which historians and buffs can engage in thoughtful conversation, debate, sharing of knowledge, etc. Oh sure - my experience tells me that you will come across plenty of crackpots, wingnuts, and knotheads along the way - but that is just life. Get used to it.

What you will find more of are people - those who hold advanced degrees and those who do not - with an interest in engaging with one another...speaking about, writing, and publishing Civil War history online. And there are may outlets. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and a host of others provide free places to say whats on your mind. trust me - go on the web and start talking and people will respond. Lots of people.

I am writing an article as we speak on the value of social media and Civil War history. I (naturally) think it is of the utmost importance. I also accept the fact that there is a ton of information out there - some of it is just plain ridiculous. But that's OK - those of us with sense will see through it. I hope anyway. Another problem could be the sheer volume of historical documentation that we all have at our disposal. How do we begin to wade through the mountains of information currently being digitized a put on the Internet? I suppose our problems could be worse - and the answer(s) remain to be seen.

But of course, the historian/history buff nexus, from where I sit, are social media. Embrace, explore, publish. Who knows what we might figure out together.



btw - the guy in the picture is a random Civil War relic collector with his buckle display. He was the among the first in an image search for "Civil War Buff."

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Missouri Slave Auction Reenactment

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The Civil War sesquicentennial will feature - over the next four years - a great deal of commemoration and remembrance. Celebration will naturally be a significant component of the upcoming events around the nation. Reenactments of some of the eras most salient moments will surely touch the hearts of many Americans.

On January 15th, on the old courthouse steps in St. Louis, Missouri, a reenactment took place unlike any other that I have yet heard about. Approximately 150 reenactors staged a slave auction. Organizers in St. Louis wanted to stress slavery as the primary cause of the war and this - the first of many events scheduled in Missouri to commemorate the war's 150th anniversary - pretty much did the trick.

I have to admit that the thought of this event - at first - was somewhat off-putting. I felt it horribly crass to project such imagery as a spectator sport. But after careful consideration I changed my tune. With all the celebrations of state rights and secession in the face of a tyrannical government going on throughout the South, I found it perfectly fitting - even necessary - for an organization to put on display, for public viewing, the single most tragic part of American history - what the war was all about.

We must also remember that many white southerners saw slavery as the cornerstone of the South...that its economy and institutions rested on the foundation of slavery. The reenactment painfully reminds us of this very truth. And if the event makes us uncomfortable...then so be it.

I have been tending in a particular direction lately - sternly opposing any "watering down" of history.  Those who opposed this reenactment because it evoked the pain and suffering so typical of the Civil War era have missed their marks. It is profoundly important that we see, feel, hear, and thus, fully understand these episodes as the essence of the sectional split, and the tragedies endemic to that split.



Wednesday, January 19, 2011

And a Few Great Blogs Will Rise To the Top

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you might have guessed, I read a hellofalot of blogs on the Civil War. Many, many of them are thoughtful, helpful, useful, you name it - they are just damn good.

So I thought it would be a good idea to feature some of my favorites right here on Cosmic America. Today I am talking about Civil War Books and Authors. I suppose it is pretty obvious what this blog is about (there is something to be said for a clear and concise title). But CWBaA is more than just a listing of the latest out there. There is much more going on here.

CWBaA provides insightful reviews, humorous notes here and there, and a comprehensive collection of links that any Civil War scholar, buff, enthusiast or whatever will find invaluable.

The site is fully searchable so you should have no trouble at all finding what you are looking for. There are nearly 1000 posts dating back to 2005. Be sure to subscribe and or bookmark this one because it is updated frequently!



A Very Special Message From Cosmic America

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well...the fur is flying in Hollywood and I have a special request straight from Cosmic America HQ. My wife Coni is running the Miami Marathon for the ASPCA and we need your help. Now's your chance to give a little (or a lot) to a worthy cause!

Of course, I will continue to keep the posts coming and I will keep you up to date on our progress.

Just click HERE to donate.



What Happened to the 54th Massachusetts After Fort Wagner?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I am guessing that you have all scene the film Glory - about Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry in the Civil War. The film's culminating moment is the epic charge against Battery Wagner - one of the several forts near Charleston, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863. As we all know from the film, the regiment suffered heavy casualties including the death of Colonel Shaw.

But the regiment lived to fight another day. Now commanded by Edward Needles Hallowell, the 54th again saw action in Florida. On the afternoon of February 20th, 1864 Union forces under the command of Truman Seymour engaged Joseph Finegan's Confederates at Ocean Pond - the Battle of Olustee. After an afternoon of heavy fighting, Union soldiers retreated under heavy Rebel fire. Covering the retreat, the 54th, alongside the 35th USCT, repulsed one final Confederate attack.

On November 30, 1864, The 54th had at the Rebs as part of an expeditionary force in Sherman's March to the Sea. In an effort to cut the rail line between Charleston and Savannah, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts attacked firmly entrenched Confederates at the Battle of Honey Hill, near Grahamville, Georgia. The Rebels proved too well entrenched to be dislodged and the Union forces withdrew.

Finally, on April 18th, 1865, the 54th took part in the Battle of Boykin's Mill - the very last battle on South Carolina soil. This time, the 54th was given the job of charging single file against a well defended fort. The outnumbered Confederates retreated from the field. The cessation of hostilities was announced two days later and Confederate general Joseph Johnston officially surrendered on the 29th...pretty much sealing the deal on the CSA.

So there you have it - maybe a squeal to Glory is in order!!



Monday, January 17, 2011

Excellent Research Facility - The Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

We here at Cosmic America (this phrase will actually ring true once I have a staff) are very concerned with providing as many connections as we possibly can. Many are linked on the right hand side of this blog - and from time to time, I will highlight one that I found particularly comprehensive and helpful.

For those of you interested in veterans, be sure to visit the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. Here you will find a mountain of documents on veterans of America's wars - not only the Civil War but the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Conflicts.

I spent over a week pouring over the (seemingly endless) collection from the Museum's Grand Army of the Republic Archives. If the GAR had something to say in Wisconsin, The WVM has it in their files! Of particular interest for those of you involved with Union veterans, the GAR Patriotic Instructor, one Lucius Fairchild, was a Wisconsin veteran. His files are at the WVM and come in handy when trying to figure out the Grand Army message to the world.

They have quite a bit of information listed on their website and are more than helpful when it comes to special requests. I know for sure that there is a collection guide for Civil War veterans - I shot them an email and they sent it right over.

So there you go - the first of many research facilities that I will be talking about in the future.



Cosmic America's Civil War: Office Hours at Mao's Kitchen (again) January 17th, 2011

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So it's back to Mao's Kitchen for another episode of Office Hours! I love this place - the food is tasty and as you can tell...they play fun music.

Today we look at politics. Pablo from Colorado wants to know about political parties in the Confederacy and Rudy in Nova Scotia is interested in the Union soldier vote in the election of 1864. So check it out.

Also - a special shout out to @Chucktaft a twitter friend who answered this week's trivia question correctly.

Now - in other news, you probably know that me and my wife Coni are both avid fitness people and animal rights advocates. This month, Coni is running the Miami marathon for the ASPCA and we are asking for your help to raise money for this very worthy cause. Any amount makes a difference, whether it's one dollar or a thousand. You can find out more by clicking on the "Rescue Animals" page on this blog or just click HERE to donate. Thanks in advance and, as always,



Shelby Foote and the North's Other Arm

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

One of my favorite quotes from Ken Burns's epic documentary The Civil War comes from none other that Shelby Foote himself. Yes indeed...America's most well-known and much revered Civil War... ummmm..... interpreter.

Mr. Foote, like many who take a romanticized view of the gallant Confederates fighting hopelessly against long odds, cast the Confederate bid for independence as doomed from the start. "I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back," said  Foote. If the Confederacy ever had come close to winning on the battlefield, "the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that war."

This is my favorite quote precisely because it opens the door to so much discussion. Many - both scholars and popular writers alike, seem to think that a great deal of the citizens of the Confederacy were not really all that committed to winning the war. Not committed to establishing an independent slave-holding republic.

But the idea that white southerners were nothing more than a collection of individuals whose allegiance lay with their states and who, by the mid point of the war, were wallowing in defeatism and despair and more than ready to jump ship, obscures the profound connection that most had to the Confederate national state. Independence was foremost on their minds - and a great deal of the citizens of the CSA were willing to endure the greatest hardships to make sure the Rebs won.

So - I am sure you will find Mr. Foote charming, as he sits comfortably is his wrinkled blue shirt before an impressively dusty collection of old books. But he missed his mark by a Confederate mile. Suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance and everybody knew it is just not correct. Who would fight a war they knew they had no chance of winning? They even had a good example to follow - remember, a loose confederation of colonies once defeated the British Empire to secure their independence. I am pretty sure the Rebs made note of that one.

And trust me...the Union used both hands - they had read some history too.



Sunday, January 16, 2011

The "Rebel Yell" Revisited

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

For decades, we thought we knew what the Rebel yell sounded like. We figured it was somewhere between a blood-curdling scream and an extended YEEEEEEEEEHHHHHAAAAAAAA in The Dukes of Hazzard fashion.

But reports from Union soldiers who heard it in battle don't exactly match up to the popular understanding of the infamous war cry. Federal soldier Ambrose Bierce said of the yell..."It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard -- even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope." And a New York Times war correspondent remarked “..the Southern soldiers cannot cheer, and what passes muster for that jubilant sound is a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it.” Shelby Foote - who seems to be the master of all things Civil War, stated in Ken Burns's The Civil War, that is was most likely some sort of "a foxhunt yip mixed up with sort of a banshee squall."

Has the sound been lost to history? Well, thanks to the Museum of the Confederacy, maybe not. Have a quick look at these two short videos and see how the MOC pieced together what sounds haunting and just plain scary - just like the Union soldiers described.

The yips, barks and yelps generated in the studio as Waite Rawls, president of the MOC describe and the yell reproduced by Henry Kidd and the other Confederate reenactors may very well be the closest thing we have to the real deal. Sometimes I imagine myself hearing this from a thousand or more voices. Yes - I am a dork.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Look at Confederate Ladies' Memorial Associations - Burying the Dead But Not the Past by Caroline E. Janney

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A decade or so back, the theme of historical memory had developed into a Juggernaut among academics. Well count me in - if there is anything more fascinating than an analysis of how people come to terms with - and remember - their history I don't know what it is. No joke. I have been elbow deep in this corner of scholarship for the better part of ten years, and I don't plan on slowing down at all.

A handful have suggested that the theme has run its course - that there may not be much left to talk about. Perhaps...just looking at all the book subtitles (i.e. "fill in the blank" in History and Memory) one might arrive at the conclusion that the topic has been drained dry.


I am happy to report that historical memory is alive and well. Thankfully so. The literature is crying out for a set of revisions - CRYING. From where I sit - there is no final word on memory, so I applaud those who travel down well worn analytical paths to...I don't know, maybe find a few new ones.

Which brings me to the book pick of the week. Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause by Caroline E. Janney. If you thought you couldn't possibly learn anything new about the Lost Cause - well then you can just think again.

This is a wonderful book about the origins of the Lost Cause and Confederate memorialization. Janney suggests that rather than the much better known Daughters of the Confederacy in the late 19th century, earlier groups - Ladies Memorial Associations - were the designers of powerful Lost Cause mythology. What's more....and here is the real nugget folks - while upper and middle-class southern white women were not considered political actors in the traditional sense, their work with burials and Confederate Memorial Day activities suggests that they were indeed intensely political, and in fact were some of the chief proponents in keeping Confederate memory alive.

So have at it. And if you are ever in Richmond, be sure to visit Hollywood Cemetery and check out some of the LMAs finest work. They were instrumental in the reinternment of the Gettysburg Dead.
If you want to follow historian Kevin Levin's fantastic blog concerning Civil War Memory, click HERE.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civil Warriors Round Table in West Hills, California - January debriefing

[caption id="attachment_300" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Historian Adam Arenson speaks with Civil Warriors"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Last night I made my first journey out to the far reaches of the West San Fernando Valley (at least it seems far when you are driving from Hollywood during rush hour) to attend the Civil Warriors monthly round table. This is a great group of people who offer a lively discussion. Civil War historians, buffs, enthusiasts and all the rest should visit one of these meetings when at all possible. My guess is you won't be let down. And here's the really good news - I have the honor of speaking at at this meeting in March - so stay tuned for that one.

This month, the Civil Warriors hosted historian Adam Arenson, author of The Great Heart of the Republic. He spoke about the Civil War in St. Louis, Missouri. On May 10, 1861, federal troops in St. Louis surrounded the Confederate-leaning State militia, who then surrendered. A riot followed - beginning four years in which the Civil War in St. Louis was a battle not fought openly, but in accusations and loyalty oaths, rumors and provost-marshal investigations. Dr. Arenson spoke of the war years in the context of the broader cultural civil war, the transformation of the entire country in debates over Manifest Destiny and slavery - and how these conversations savagely divided St. Louis, making it a Civil War battlefield far from the cannon's roar.

[caption id="attachment_303" align="alignright" width="122" caption="Adam Arenson is Author of The Great Heart of the Rebublic"][/caption]

It goes without saying that a question and answer period followed, with discussion of topics ranging from military history to reconciliation (my question...what else would you expect) to the future of teaching the Civil War in the classroom.

Thanks to Dave and Tom of the Civil Warriors for having me as a guest - I look forward to many more meetings!



George Llewellyn Christian - an Angry (ex) Confederate

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

George Llewellyn Christian was among the most prolific former Confederates around. It seems he had something to say about pretty much everything Civil War related. He wrote numerous articles, published in pamphlet form, and turned up in states all across the South to talk about the war in person. George L. Christian certainly got around.

Christian was a young man in 1861 - only twenty years old. He enlisted in the Confederate army and served with his fellow Virginians until he was horribly wounded at Spotsylvania. Having lost all of one foot and most of another, he managed to hobble off to Charlottesville and earn a law degree from the University of Virginia - and after the war became a prominent attorney.

But he never quite got over Confederate defeat. His writings and speeches are evidence of just how bitter he really was. In an 1894 tribute to Jubal Early, he noted, “The man whose soul is so dead that he is not proud to have been a part of [the Confederate] army, battling not for what he thought was right, but what was right, is too contemptible, in my opinion, to be by any human power raised to the level of brute.”

Four years later, Christian would remind the people of the South, that “whilst the cause for which [Confederates] fought is a ‘lost cause’ in the sense that they failed to establish a separate government within certain geographical limits, it is only lost in that sense. The principles of that cause yet live.” Adding his bitter voice to those of other aggravated former Confederates, Christian noted the significance of monument dedications and gatherings in terms of perpetuating Confederate memories. “Here, history will record a thrilling tale of outrage inflicted upon this defenseless people by the mercenary hordes of the North, permitted and encouraged by the remorseless cruelty and unquenchable ambition of some of their leaders.”

From the looks of things, Christian had a real problem with reconciliation. In the influential Ghosts of the Confederacy, Gaines M. Foster equates such bitter Rebels with Native American Ghost Dancers of the late-nineteenth century. “They clung to the past, defended old values, and dreamed of a world untouched by defeat.” Very few southerners, Foster argues, joined the ghost dance. By the 1880s, “Confederate celebration did not foster a revival of rabid sectionalism.” Detractors perpetuating sectional animosity simply by “not forgetting” during an era when most had presumably agreed to let “bygones be bygones” thus appear out of place in a nation characterized by an outpouring of reconciliationist sentiment.

Or do they? Historians such as Foster (and...David Blight - see post) have effectively misplaced Christian's form of commemoration. The majority of white southerners, they suggest, distanced themselves from efforts to revitalize the divisive aspects of Confederate memory and rejected bitter former Rebels as unreconstructed anachronisms.

Not so fast - in fact, Christian was a reconciliationist at heart, and he spoke often of his loyalty to the postwar United States - just like most former Confederates. And thus the problem. How do we deal with those who claim reconciliation and then say every thing they can to suggest otherwise? Evidence that I will present in my upcoming book, Across the Bloody Chasm: Reconcilation in the Wake of Civil War, will offer some clues. It seems that Christian was indeed a typical former Confederate who wanted peace and brotherly harmony between the sections so long as a few terms were met first. Namely...that northerners admitted they were wrong.

Since this was not about to happen - Christian, and many, many more like him, ran up against a bit of a stone wall (so to speak). Northern Unionists were just as stubborn when it came to their version of the war. Reconciliationists all (or most), they could never seem to agree on what the war was about. This is the legacy that we live with in the 21st century. And - it gives me something to write thanks George!



Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cosmic America's Civil War: Office Hours at Nyala - January 10, 2011

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Today we had the best Office Hours yet - Andy from Minnesota wanted me to place Jefferson Davis on the political spectrum. Here's a hint - he falls somewhere between radical abolitionist and fire-eating secessionist. I guess you'll have to watch to find out where. Jim was interested in the point where the Confederate cause was lost. A hard question to be sure...perhaps one we can only answer with the benefit on hindsight.

And...check out the very special shout out to Twitter friends @HdGHistory and @loradawn for answering my Civil War trivia questions correctly!

Today's Office Hours was held at one of my favorite lunch spots in Los Angeles: Nyala Ethiopian Cuisine. The food is great and very inexpensive. They have a wonderful vegetarian lunch special if you are in to that sort of thing. Be sure to check them out if you should find yourself in LA's Little Ethiopia.



Monday, January 10, 2011

Eyewitness to Lincoln's Assassination - Brought to you by Winston.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I would like to thank my Twitter friends @ZebulonPike1813 and @markcheathem for turning me on to this fascinating television appearance by the last living person to witness the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater. His name is Samuel Seymour, and he was 96 years old when this show, I've Got a Secret, was filmed in 1956. Thanks guys - I had never heard of him before.

This is an interesting look at Civil War era memory in action. Seymour was only five years old at the time of the shooting, and he only recalls a man (John Wilkes Booth) falling from the balcony on to the stage. As he says..."It scared him to death." Only later did he learn of the significance of the event.

This mid-1950s television show somewhat trivializes Lincoln's assassination, and really really makes me want to smoke a Winston cigarette, but I have to say I was captivated by the elderly man - a witness to a momentous event in American history. Illustrating that even in the television age (which I am pretty sure is on it's way out now) we are not so far removed from the war.

I am going to add this vintage Civil War related footage to my list of favorites right up there with this: Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge in 1938.



Sunday, January 9, 2011

Colonel David Ireland - the Hero of Culp's Hill...Missing in Action

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I feel bad for Colonel David Ireland. Why you ask? Well...because you can't find a T-shirt with his image on it at any Gettysburg gift shop. And I think I know why.

You might even be wondering who David Ireland is. Born in Scotland (really?) Ireland was a tailor in New York City before the war. During the war he served as Captain for the 76th New York Infantry.* He saw action at the Battle of Chancellorsville as part of the XII corps.

But the fun didn't really start for Ireland until the second day at Gettysburg. Ireland's regiment was the extreme right of the Union line - positioned on Culp's Hill - the barbed section of the famous Union "fishhook." Loss of this hill would have been devastating to the Union at Gettysburg. It commanded both Cemetery Hill and the Baltimore Pike, and thus stood guard for supply lines and the road to Baltimore or even Washington City.

The XII corps had taken up position there on the morning of July 2. Meanwhile...Confederate General Lee had ordered a simultaneous attack on both ends of the Union line. Richard S. Ewell, commander of the Confederate II corps eventually got things going around 4 PM - when he heard the attack commence on the Union left. By 7 PM he sent in his main attack up the eastern slope of Culp's Hill. Three Rebel brigades from "Allegheny" Johnson's division hit Ireland's regiment hard - and were stopped in their tracks by the firmly entrenched New Yorkers.

The Union right held - against the better part of an attacking Confederate division.

But all the credit for saving the Union (and thus, the war) goes to our old friend, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, colonel of the 20th Maine - who held the extreme left of the Union line at Little Round Top.

What gives? Why no love for Ireland these days? seems that popular culture has taken over in this particular case. With Michael Shaara's Killer Angels, and subsequently the Burns Documentary The Civil War and finally the film Gettysburg, Ireland has been relegated to obscurity. People want more and more Chamberlain stories - poor Ireland just gets lost in the mix.

So Colonel David Ireland - who also held the line at all costs, doesn't get the accolades he deserves - or hardly even a mention in the popular treatment of the epic 1863 battle. So I am going to make my own T-shirt and wear it on the battlefield. Let's see if anybody recognizes the good colonel - let's just see....



* extra-special thanks to Cosmic America reader John Stoudt for reminding me that David Ireland originally served in the 79th NY, not the 76th...and that he commanded the 137th NY Infantry at Gettysburg. I always welcome correction when I make mistakes - thanks again!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Ed Ayers on the Civil War and the South

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, author of The Promise of the New South and In the Presence of Mine Enemies, mastermind of the Valley of the Shadow project, and one of my former professors at the University of Virginia, weighs in on the defeat of the Confederacy. In just over a minute, he puts things in perspective by illustrating exactly what the southern states lost in their effort to form a slave-holding republic.



Robert E. Lee - A Tragic Figure in The American Experience

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I have finally sat down to watch The American Experience: Robert E. Lee. Being the avid fan of well-done documentaries, I must say that I was not disappointed - at least not for the most part. We are treated to a mighty fine cast of historians providing the analytical commentary including Peter S. Carmichael, Joseph Glathaar, Gary W. Gallagher, Emory M. Thomas and a number of other first-rate scholars. PBS provides the narration and additional analysis - and as it turns out, a link to a streaming version! So watch and enjoy right here on Cosmic America! Oh, and by the way - you might want to watch to video (if you haven't already) before you continue reading. I wouldn't want to blow the ending.

The emphasis of Robert E. Lee is a move away from the deity in bronze or marble man image that the mighty general has ascended to since his death in 1870. The program paints the Virginia aristocrat as an altogether human figure. A human with an almost obsessive devotion to duty above all else, even family. The film walks us through the life of Lee as a young cadet at West Point, as Winfield Scott's trusted staffer in the War With Mexico, through a religious conversion experience, and as an ardent Confederate nationalist. He is irritable during the 1862-63 winter, at one point humiliating a subordinate in front of others. He experiences a bout of melancholy when he learns of family tragedy, and he suffers from an incapacitating heart condition. In other words - a man with emotions, faults, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and illness...just what we might expect of any other man.

Except that this is Robert E. Lee - and the film is very conscious of letting us know that many - both in the North and South - saw Lee as infallible...a virtuous, honorable soldier in a noble cause.

But Lee is a man who failed. He failed on an epic scale and saw everything that he stood for crumble. No one knew this better than Lee himself. So ultimately, Lee is a tragic figure. A man who on one hand was as virtuous as one can be, but who on the other saw no real problem with slavery and led an army to preserve it. In 1865, his country is defeated, his fortune is gone, his beloved Virginia is in ruins, and his family is only a shadow of what it once was. He spends the few remaining of his life in bitter private reflection.

And thus my critique of Robert E. Lee. The general narration of the film has a somewhat apologetic, even sorrowful tone - it seems to empathize with a man who has lost everything because of a devotion to duty. Do we then walk away from this film feeling as though Lee deserved better than what he got? Even Lee himself once stated that he wished he had not chosen the life of a soldier. Should we wish the same?

Lee is among the most compelling figures in American history. His brilliance and military acumen deserve accolades. But many have a difficult time reconciling this with the fact that a man of such great virtues committed treason against the nation he swore to protect - as does Robert E. Lee.

The film seems to poke a little at this nagging problem. The opening segments - "Lee" reading his pledge of allegiance to the United States as a young army officer bookended by a closing segment of a much older "Lee" reading his oath of loyalty to those same United States suggest that we should think more about his commitment to the national state.

In the end this is the real tragedy - that Lee, with all the promise of a brilliant career, cast his lot with what U. S. Grant would call "the worst cause for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." One could argue that he stood up to be counted in utter disregard of his devotion to duty - and thus turned his back on his nation and indeed - himself. In this the film only makes slight inroads - ones that perhaps are left for a future documentary.



The Best Book Ever - That I Disagree With: Race and Reunion by David Blight

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A former student asked me to elaborate on exactly why I disagree with David W. Blight's  Race and Reunion. Fair enough - I talk about disagreeing with it all the time. Perhaps a little explanation is in order.

But first, I would like to say that this is an important work in the field of Civil War memory - maybe the most important (at least right now). It is beautifully written and about as captivating as a history book can be. I just think that Blight has missed his mark. Here is my thinking on what I term Blight's (and others') "reconciliation premise" - paraphrased from a yet-unpublished manuscript on the subject of veterans and national reconciliation.

Blight, while curiously overlooking northern efforts to commemorate the fight to preserve the Union, examines how participants at events geared toward reconciliation, such as the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, ignored the principal issues leading to war and the Union war aim of emancipation. At these events, mentions of slavery or emancipation were conspicuously absent. Blight reasons, together with white supremacists, reconciliationists “locked arms” and “delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” He concludes, “Forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture [and] the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”

Scholars can and should agree that Civil War veterans from both North and South shared in their racist sensibilities; they can likewise condemn them for their actions. But while the participants were undoubtedly racist, emphasizing veterans’ reconciliatory impulses solely as efforts to commemorate a “white only” war runs the risk of obscuring veterans’ intentions. Did veterans calculatingly contribute to historical amnesia along racial lines in the name of reconciliation? There is relatively little evidence pointing to this conclusion. It is true that from the point of view of most veterans, reconciliation seemed the soundest course of action. Yet the memories that informed the terms of reconciliation suggest that Civil War veterans acquiesced to reaching across the bloody chasm only so long as their former enemies accepted their respective arguments – a scenario that seldom transpired.

Even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the memories of slavery, emancipation, and the trials of freedmen coupled with other contentious issues such as treason and the right of secession loomed large for former soldiers from both North and South. In fact, questions concerning race functioned as a leitmotif throughout the reconciliation era. Whether veterans celebrated the demise of slavery and saw emancipation as a worthy component of their cause, or viewed slavery as an incident rather than a cause of the war, race and the plight of black Americans functioned as a central narrative in the battle to write the terms of reconciliation.

Evidence suggests (and I have examples to spare – just ask) that Blight’s efforts to illustrate the memory of the war as a “white only” “southern terms” affair miss the bull’s-eye by a Confederate mile. The terms of reconciliation were – and still are for that matter – undecided, hashed out, and fought least on a national scale. Slavery, emancipation, and black people in general were central to this post-war conflict over memory. Neither Union nor Confederate veterans let the citizens of a reunited nation forget their positions on this volatile subject – a subject that has remained among the most divisive generations after the conflict. But as always - I suggest you read Race and Reunion and judge for yourself.



Thursday, January 6, 2011

Civil War Reenactment at Calico Ghost Town, February 19th, 20th, and 21st, 2011.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Now if this isn't a flag-raising patriotic picture I don't know what is. And if all goes according to plans, I will be seeing this first hand in February, 2011. Yes indeed - I am going to the Calico Ghost Town in Yermo California this February for their annual Civil War reenactment.

Here's the thing: I find Civil War reenactors a curious bunch. I am intrigued by why they do what they do. I have run across many of these guys and been to several "encampments." Their motivations to enlist in "reactivated" units seem range from intense ideology to a desire to have a little family fun time. And I have loved talking to all across the spectrum. I am fascinated by their (nineteenth-century)  politics and impressed by their commitment to battlefield preservation.

Strangely, I have never been to a battle reenactment. I have never smelled the gunpowder from an artillery barrage or witnessed a musket volley. So I figure it is about time. This February, video camera in hand, I will make the pilgrimage to Yermo, California to check a reenactment out first hand.

Of course, there will be interviews (if the boys in blue and gray are willing). I want to know what makes these guys tick. So stay tuned. I am sure  to kick up a fuss.



Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Review of Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory by John Cimprich

I was dusting off some of my book concerning Civil War memory and I came across this one - by John Cimprich...Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005). This book is worth reading, especially if you are interested in the history of the fort and the details of the infamous massacre. I was however, disappointed in the book's lack of analysis - or perhaps I should say misdirected analysis - or perhaps I should say Cimprich sort of jumped on the memory band wagon a little late in the game with nothing really new to offer to the ever-growing collection of titles on Civil War memory. At any rate, I also came across a review I wrote for Southern Historian...way back in 2006, which was published the following year in said journal. As you can see, I was pretty lukewarm on the book back then too. Here you go...

On April 12, 1864, Confederates under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest overran Federal forces garrisoned at Fort Pillow, a remote fortification in western Tennessee overlooking the Mississippi River. Northerners reeled from news of the Confederate victory. The most biting reports emphasized the murder of black Union soldiers and white Tennessee Unionists stationed at the fort. Forrest’s men – perhaps Forrest himself – flagrantly exceeded the tacit civility of conventional warfare and showed no quarter to surrendering Federal soldiers. In turn, Confederates disputed accusations suggesting Forrest let loose a massacre in pell-mell fashion. Divergent accounts of this event resonated long after the close of the conflict and fueled bitter controversy between formerly warring individuals and their descendants.

Cimprich, unquestionably an expert on this tragic event, meticulously details the days leading to the battle and the massacre itself. Readers will benefit from a blow-by-blow account of the action adeptly composed from participant testimony. But Cimprich’s objective is to move beyond a recreation of immediate incidents and weave the narrative of the fort into a survey of broader Civil War topics. He thus explores the experiences of green troops in combat, daily life of soldiers in camp, guerrilla warfare, and the shift from a Union war policy of conciliation to so-called “hard” war. One can observe all of these issues, Cimprich insists, through an analysis of the fort from its earliest incarnations as a Confederate outpost in 1861.

He may very well be correct. Undoubtedly, the lives (and deaths) of soldiers of both armies affiliated with the fort over its short history corresponded to the full gamut of Civil War experiences. However, Cimprich’s connections are often tenuous. For instance, his discussion of the Union policy of hard war, while well articulated, does not clearly illustrate the fort as a relevant factor in the policy as Cimprich implies. Agreed, Union cavalrymen “may have used Fort Pillow” (51) as a base of operations. Yet, this suggestion could be applied to nearly any fort, outpost, house, or town in the region. Further, Cimprich fails to offer anything particularly new regarding Union war policy. The problem thus rests with Cimprich’s efforts to elaborate on topics that serve to distract from the matter at hand – the fort itself. Far too much of this book travels familiar roads and then tacks on the fort in a concluding statement, seemingly as an afterthought.

Naturally, one would expect a discussion of race in a story that involves the murder of several dozen black Union soldiers. Suggesting that a “cruel spirit animated many of the Confederates,” (82) Cimprich concludes that racism was the principal motivating factor in the massacre. Again, the reader could easily suppose that Cimprich is correct. Yet this assertion seems so obvious as to appear banal. Rather than “proving” racist Confederate soldiers took especial pleasure killing blacks, Cimprich might have further developed intriguing ideas mentioned briefly elsewhere in the text. How, particularly in a war where soldiers on both sides clearly expressed overt racism, did race function in the development of two distantly different national ideologies? Here, the fort could indeed represent a microcosm of the clash between two dissimilar nationalisms.
Finally, the discussion of public memory in the book’s concluding chapter offers a brief look at various interpretations of the massacre story since the war’s close. In short, Cimprich’s work fits neatly with many memory studies published over the last several years. Varying and changing interpretations of the massacre, he argues, reflected specific cultures and historical circumstances fueling regionalism and supporting societies founded on white supremacy. Signing off with a somewhat cliché hope that “society” might one day move beyond intolerance, Cimprich misses an opportunity to describe not only how memories reflect cultures, but also how individuals use memories to shape those cultures.

Criticisms aside, Cimprich does provide a clear narrative of what actually took place at Fort Pillow in April 1864. Further, he provides two handy appendices outlining commanders and units involved in the fort’s history as well as the numbers of killed and wounded. Those interested in the details of the battle and massacre and Civil War soldiers in general will find this book useful.

But hey - judge for yourself and read Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre...comments welcome! If you liked the book (more than I did) and disagree with my assessment, fire away!


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bayyyyyyoooooooneeeeeeetttts....CHARGE! The 20th Maine in the film, Gettysburg

Yessiree - films have a powerful affect on us all. I am going to wager that pretty much everyone with an interest in Civil War history has had a look at Ron Maxwell's 1993 film, Gettysburg. I will also wager that pretty much everyone has something to say about it - good...bad...or somewhere in between.

For starters, I have to say that I enjoyed the film (I can't say the same about Maxwell's follow up prequel, Gods and Generals - but that is a story for another day). I saw Gettysburg as a student, and I have shown it to my own students as part of an on-going effort to get at how Americans understand the history of their greatest national conflict.

I am particularly interested in how this film has helped catapult Joshua "don't call me Lawrence" Chamberlain to the upper echelon of Union heroes. As we all know, Chamberlain's unit, the 20th Maine, was positioned on the extreme left of the Union line at Gettysburg on July 2nd, 1863: Little Round Top. Their orders: hold the position at all costs.

Admittedly - this was a precarious situation. While they held the high ground (and thus a tactical advantage) the 20th was up against an Alabama regiment of Confederate General Longstreet's Second Corps (some ass-kicking Rebels) and their left flank was exposed...hanging out in the breeze, really. Failure to hold this position could have essentially threatened the entire Union line - and everybody knew it. Anyone who has been to Little Round Top can plainly see that properly deployed Confederate guns would have been in a perfect position to roll up the Union left flank. The film suggests that this was the pivotal moment in the battle and the war. "If we lose this fight," declares Chamberlain in the film, "we lose the war."

Bummer. So the whole enchilada hinged on the commanding prowess of one man - and a college professor to boot. No worries - Chamberlain and the 20th won the day. A bayonet charge just when all seemed lost pushed the final Rebel advance off the hill and voila - the UNION WAS SAVED!!!

Not so fast. Now I am not trying to retrospectively kick Chamberlain in the nuts here, but let's have a look at the bigger picture. I think, and most would agree, that Chamberlain and the 20th did a splendid job at Gettysburg (and Jeff Daniels did some bang-up work in the film, too). But did one man save the Union? I think not.

So why does this one soldier have such a hold on the American imagination? Well, it works a little like this. No one had heard much about Chamberlain until 1974, when Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels, a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg on which the film Gettysburg is based. Apparently Shaara was taken with Chamberlain's story. A thoughtful college professor of rhetoric with a keen sense of right and wrong and an uncanny ability to master the art of warfare seemingly made for an excellent central character and a wonderful narrator of the Union cause. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and elevated Chamberlain in the eyes of Civil War enthusiasts.

But things really took off in 1990. Ken Burns, the self-proclaimed future of documentary film making, brought the Civil War into the living rooms of millions of Americans with his epic multi-part film, The Civil War. According to Burns, The Killer Angels was a "remarkable book that changed my life." So it stands to reason, then, that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine would hold such a prominent position in the documentary. And if Burns's film didn't prove once and for all that Chamberlain essentially saved the Union, Gettysburg sealed the deal. Historians virtually ignored Chamberlain for the longest time, it took popular culture to shed light on this intrepid savior.

OK Chamberlain can just relax. I love me some 20th, and Chamberlain was the real deal. Hell, he won the medal of honor for his gallantry on Little Round Top - and deservedly so. Let's just be clear on a few things. He did not win the Battle of Gettysburg and save the Union all by himself.

For one, the 20th held only one end of the line. On the Union far right - Culp's Hill - Colonel David Ireland commanded the 137th New York and held his position against an entire Confederate division. A loss here could have been equally catastrophic for the Union cause. But he is not mentioned in Shaara's The Killer Angels, Burns's The Civil War, or Maxwell's Gettysburg. Too bad for Ireland. His cultural resonance is merely a blip against the Chamberlain juggernaut - even though his work was equally daunting, equally crucial, and was executed with equal fortitude and gallantry as Chamberlain's.

But my quibbling with Chamberlain's role in Gettysburg really leads me to my bigger point. The film has helped instill the idea in the greater American narrative that the war all came down to one battle. It did not. The Gettysburg as "high tide" of the Confederacy story really did not take hold until after the war, when analysts and historians looked retrospectively for the moment when the Confederacy had its greatest chance to secure independence. From this perspective, things went steadily downhill for the Rebels from July, 1863 to Appomattox. This is a powerful idea in many ways - but believe me, very few (if any) people in 1863 saw Gettysburg as deciding things one way or the other. Citizens of the Union were thrilled by the news of victory, citizens of the Confederacy were devastated by defeat. But the war went on for nearly two more years - and the people from both republics looked to the armies in the field for news of victory that would bring them closer to securing their respective causes.

The film suggests otherwise - and no one understands this better than our hero, the sagacious Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Gettysburg leaves the viewer with the knowledge that Gettysburg would have been the decisive battle for Confederate victory and, thanks to Chamberlain, this victory would not take place. Thank God that one colonel had the cajones to make the crucial decision to order a last ditch bayonet charge at the most critical moment in the battle. The film thus falls in line with one of the greatest misconceptions regarding the war: that Gettysburg was the war's turning point. And this is ultimately what the Chamberlain story tells us. But misconception or not - Chamberlain is today among the top ten Civil War cultural icons...right up there with Lee and Lincoln. After all, you can't find a David Ireland t-shirt for sale at any Gettysburg gift shop. This may be the most devastating fact of all.

Of course, that's just my opinion - judge for yourself...

The Killer Angels
The Civil War



Cosmic America EXCLUSIVE! Gary W. Gallagher on His New Book - The Union War

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia and author of The Confederate War, Lee and his Generals in War and Memory, and Causes Lost, Won, and Forgotten has given me the honor of the very first interview on his new book - The Union War.

I am really looking forward to this, as I am sure you are too. We had a nice chat, some good coffee, and I learned all about his upcoming book. Be sure to get your copy - it should be out in March, 2011.



Monday, January 3, 2011

Cosmic America's Civil War: Office Hours at the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Today's Office Hours was fun as usual - Lance from Colorado wanted to know what happened after the 54th Massachusetts Infantry confronted the Rebs at Ft. Wagner. If you remember, the film Glory left the 54th after their ill-fated frontal assault on the fort (or rather...battery) near Charleston, South Carolina. It turns out that they went on to fight in some other engagements. Addie from Arkansas wanted to know more about my Civil War ancestry - thanks for caring Addie :) here you go...

Today we met at the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada - curiously named because it is in Los Feliz...but I will let them slide. The fish tacos were indeed pretty damn good...and the price was right. So, if you should find yourself in Los Angeles driving down Hillhurst and you get the munchies - I say stop in. And get the hot mango salsa. It's not really that hot but very tasty.



Gary W. Gallagher and the Americans' Fascination with the Civil War

Greetings Cosmic Americans!
I was thinking about posting something on Americans' fascination with the Civil War era - and then I found this. Gary W. Gallgher, who was my dissertation adviser at the University of Virginia, pretty much captures my sentiments as well. And he does it in only about three minutes. Nice...short and to the point.

But here's a idea that he only touches on - one I think deserves a bit of elaboration. Many Americans have a personal connection with the conflict, and we grew up hearing the older members of the family telling the war stories - passed down from generation to generation. This is what did it for me. My Civil War ancestors (that I know about) fought in the 16th Alabama and the 27th Georgia Regiments. One - Andrew Jackson Holbert, was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, walked home to Lawrence County Alabama, recovered and rejoined his unit. From what I understand...he had seen enough of war and his reenlistment was not a mutual decision.

I am quite sure the stories were romanticized, elaborated upon, and all the other stuff that undoubtedly distorted what really happened with my family - but the point is...I was sold on the history, and have since dedicated a significant part of my life to the study of the war.

People that I cross paths with in this field tell me similar stories. This personal connection to the national story of the war - from both sides - is what I believe keeps the war alive in the hearts and minds of American citizens. Northern, Southern, black and white - we see the legacy of the war everywhere. In a sense it is still very much a part of us.



Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady, and the Dead at Antietam

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

There are about a zillion Civil War era pictures floating around out there. Since the invention of photography earlier in the nineteenth century, the notion of a war correspondent has taken on a whole new meaning.

Most pictures are pretty ordinary...a soldier or group of soldiers standing about displaying their weapons or relaxing in camp. Most are posed, and as far as I know, battle photographs are virtually non-existent.

But there is nothing ordinary about Alexander Gardner's Antietam series. The citizens of the United States certainly didn't think so. Gardner arrived at the battlefield shortly after September 17th, 1862 - just in time to photograph the grim work of war. Most of his shots were "stereographs" which means he took two images (with a special two-lens camera) of the same view to be shown through a special viewing device creating a 3-d image.

But here's the real kicker. His images were reproduced and spread throughout the states - where they became all the rage. Matthew Brady's gallery in New York City displayed Gardner's original images for public viewing - a showing that created quite the stir. Americans (civilians, anyway) had never really glimpsed the horrors of war in such a realistic fashion. For the first time, the war hit home. New Yorkers were shocked and appalled. The New York Times stated that Brady was able to "bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it…"

War photography, what most would consider part of our daily dose of the world beyond our immediate surroundings, is everywhere and readily available to all. This was not the case in 1862.