Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Was I Up To in 1985?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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



You Ask, I Answer: Comprehensive Exams.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon chance!


Monday, August 29, 2011

Edmund Ruffin - A Man Without a Country

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Confederate Veterans at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cosmic America Joins Forces with Wardance Pictures for The Reenactors

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

Bon chance!


Friday, August 12, 2011

Literacy in the 1860s

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Caning of Charles Sumner

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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



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

The Guilty Cause of the Whole Mischief

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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