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!


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When is Total War Total?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

One of the the things Civil War historians encounter all the time is the nagging question: was the Civil War a total war?

This is actually not as easy a question to answer as one might think. Naturally one would tend to look at the military aspects of the war and what total war even means. Total war suggest exactly that - total...the intentional and indiscriminate destruction of the enemy's military and civilian existence - perhaps something such as the United States' incendiary bombing of Tokyo during WWII would be a good example of this definition.

But does this apply to the Civil War? Mark Grimsley's outstanding Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 suggests not. Grimsley concludes that a Union war initiated with a conciliatory policy eventually turned to a hard war - leveled against some civilians in an effort to demoralize the southern populace and wreck their ability to wage sustained warfare. But this was far from the total war in the 20th or 21st century definition of the term.

But there are, of course, other ways to consider a total war. Economic expansion and state centralization are also good indices to suggest a society aligning itself along the total war axis. In terms of the Civil War, scholars such as J. Matthew Gallman and Stanley Engerman argue that the United States saw relatively little of this activity as a direct result of the war. In fact, they conclude that while the United States saw limited economic change in terms of the expansion of firms and centralization (based on comparative decadal evidence form the 1850s and 1870s), the Confederacy - a nation conceived on the notion of the supremacy of state rights - was profoundly centralized. Does that mean the Confederacy waged a total war? Hmmmm........

But that aside, perhaps we can evaluate the notion of total war by asking the participants. Northerners experienced nothing even close to the hardships endured by some southerners. As my former adviser Gary Gallagher points out, just read Little Women to get an idea of how the war affected the northern homefront. Then again, even many southerners saw little of the war in their backyards. The citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, for example, did not have to deal with Union forces until the very end of the war.

But what about the residents of the northern part of Virginia? They suffered the hardships of war for four years. As Armies passed through and fought over their land - taking their livestock, burning up their fence rails, drinking their wells dry, etc - their left an unrecognizable landscape in their wake. Ask those people who lived through it - I'll bet they would say it was a total every aspect of the term.



Sunday, July 10, 2011

Continuity and Change in the Civil War

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

And good evening to you where ever in the world you might be. Great news! Thanks to the nice people (especially Joseph and Ravi) at the Apple Store in the Grove in Hollywood, my computer is back up and running...better, stronger, faster - and all for no charge. You gotta love these guys when it comes to customer service.

Today I have been reading Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman. The title is a shade misleading because it is (mostly) about Philadelphians at war, who I suppose are indeed northerners, but not any more northern that the good citizens from Boston, New York, Cincinnati, or Milwaukee. So the book - a collection of essays - is not so much about all northerners, just some. But while I have a tendency to pick nits about nearly everything, I would also like to point out that this is a very good book. Buy it - you won't be sorry - especially if you have more than a passing interest in the City of Brotherly Love.

Northerners at War has got me thinking about a puzzling question: did the war act as a great catalyst for change in the United States or did things end up pretty much the same in 1865 as they had been in 1860 and before? The question in and of itself is not what I find so puzzling, but rather, why it is framed in this manner. Gallman, by the way, stresses continuity. Case in point from the opening essay: yes - northern (from Philly) women moved in to the public sphere in new ways through their work in the United States Sanitary Commission and in other capacities during Philadelphia's Great Central Fair in 1864. But, as Gallman points out, their work was circumscribed by prevalent gender roles. They did many of the things that mid-nineteenth century women did, they just did them outside the home - in public...and in the press. So it seems that gender assumptions made no great leaps during this period. Continuity prevailed (at least in Northerners).

I can't say with any degree of certainty that I have all the answers here, but I will ask this: does framing a historical inquiry in the "either it changed or it didn't" manner only present a sort of flimsy dichotomy? From a northern perspective, the Civil War broadly defined was an effort of continuity from the very beginning - restore the Union. And that they did. And they did so by harnessing the available resources - including the work of those who had seldom before (or in limited ways) entered the realm of public  - and dare I say....traditionally political - activity. I can get behind Gallman's focus on continuity. But his juxtaposition against change leaves me hanging a little. Is that really all there is to it?

Many other historians have a tendency to look at the war as a great transitional event - particularly when it comes to peoples' self image as citizens  - or in terms of assumptions about race, class, name it. I am going to go way out on a limb and challenge this. But not in a way that simply accents the absence of transition. Looking at United States history as an unfolding of a series of transitions from one thing to another (the Civil War being the most apparent example of this) assumes a near teleological  - and almost always triumphal - trajectory.

While transitions certainly took place during the war (just ask the 3 million former slaves in 1865...), we could say transition (or change or whatever you want to call it) happened in an effort to get back to something that many Americans in 1860 thought could be slipping away. So northerners fought (and won) the war. And in so doing opened some doors for people who had suffered from the imposition of custom - but in an additive rather than transitional way.  We might even say that change assumed a conservative tone.

Have I simply confused the issue further? Good. At any rate, these are just a few ideas that I have been toying around with lately - so I would like to thank Matt Gallman for his thought provoking words.



Friday, July 8, 2011

Can You Freakin' Believe It?

Well, yes...according to the Mac "genius," the hard drives on Macbooks have a 100% failure rate. Like death and taxes, one can depend on it. It is simply a matter of time. Alas, the time came for my, until now, trusty laptop. Rest in peace old friend.

And so many of the pictures and videos that I painstakenly collected on my recent trip to Gettysburg are now lost to the ages. Bummer.

Fortunately, I saved a fair number of these nuggets on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube so I still have something to work with.

The Civil War Institue conference debriefing will indeed follow shortly - once I have installed some new and improved software on my poor shell of a computer.

So stay tuned my friends. I do not expect to be blogging from my iPhone for much longer. At least a valuable lesson was learned. Back up your files people. I had not - and I lost years of work AND my iTunes collection.

So, as I contemplate the rebuilding of my complete Leonard Cohen catalogue, I leave you with this: I am sure glad that I managed to put a few important documents on book manuscripts and such. Sheesh - that loss might have pushed me over the edge!