Friday, September 30, 2011

What Civil War Battlefield Would You Most Like to Visit?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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


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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Civil War Numbers Game: Counting the Dead

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

Until recently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, September 26, 2011

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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sherman's March and the History Channel

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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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



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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 22, 2011

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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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


Monday, September 19, 2011

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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bitter Fruits of Bondage by Armstead Robinson

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cosmic America: Office Hours from Joshua Tree National Park

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Civil War Institute Conference 2012

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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



Monday, September 5, 2011

What is Your Favorite Civil War Battlefield?

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

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 1, 2011

What If What If What If (the Stonewall Post)

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

And...happy Thursday everyone!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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