Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Ascension of Robert E. Lee

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I often note that I consider counterfactual history to be an enormous waste of time. That goes for all varieties too - from the beer-and-peanuts "what ifs" to the nonsensical counterfactual "theory." Although I will admit to having come up with some absolutely ludicrous "what if" scenarios among friends in an effort to illustrate exactly how worthless counterfactual history is, I consider serious discussion in the realm of counterfactuals about as useful as watching reality television.

But as somebody probably really famous once noted - there is an exception to every rule. The one instance when I will lean just a little toward something that did not happen is when I talk about the Battle of Seven Pines outside of Richmond on May 31 and June 1, 1862. Why does this one instance get the counterfactual nod? Without going into details of the engagement, I can imagine things turning out very different over the next couple of months if not for the wounding of the Confederate army commander, Joseph E. Johnston.

On the evening on May 31, Johnston was wounded and put out of commission for a while - he was replaced by Robert E. Lee, a much more aggressive and audacious general who blunted the Federal advance and took the initiative against the Union Army of the Potomac. But things could have turned out really, really bad for the Rebels. With all the bad news in the Western Theater and Richmond of the verge of  capture (all indications suggest that Johnston would have retreated to the city and eventually lost it to a siege) I find it hard to imagine the Confederacy holding on for long had Lee not taken the reins.

Yeah...who knows, right? But we can say this - Lee essentially saved Richmond and prolonged the life of the Confederacy indefinitely (from an 1862 perspective). He seized the initiative from the Yankees and by that fall drew them northward from Virginia. This extended the fight and allowed for the implementation of Lincoln's proposed strike against slavery. Counterfactualists can just go ahead and call me "pot" if you like. Whatever. But the scenario seems reasonable to me. No Lee, Richmond falls, the war ends, McClellan is a national hero, no emancipation. Or something like that.



Monday, May 28, 2012

Come Up From the Fields, Father

Come up from the fields, father, here’s a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door, mother, here’s
a letter from thy dear son.

Lo, ’tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio’s villages with leaves
fluttering in the moderate wind,
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and
grapes on the trellis’d vines,
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)
Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent
after the rain, and with wondrous clouds,
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful,
and the farm prospers well.

Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come, father, come
at the daughter’s call,
And come to the entry, mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous,
her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor
adjust her cap.

Open the envelope quickly,
0 this is not our son’s writing, yet his name
is sign’d,
0 a strange hand writes for our dear son,
0 stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black,
she catches the main words only,
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast,
cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.

Ah, now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all
its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head,
very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.

Grieve not so, dear mother (the just-grown
daughter speaks through her sobs,
The little sisters huddle around speechless and
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will
soon be better.

Alas, poor boy, he will never be better (nor maybe
needs to be better, that brave and simple soul),
While they stand at home at the door he is
dead already,
The only son is dead.

But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night
fitfully sleeping, often waking,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with
one deep longing,
0 that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent
from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead

Walt Whitman - a poem for Memorial Day

Braxton Bragg - You've Got to be Kidding Me.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

We all know Braxton Bragg - one of the principal Confederate commanders in the war's Western Theater. He was tight with Jefferson Davis, a strict disciplinarian - something of a martinet, really, he was given to irritability - suffering from any number of ailments undoubtedly causing chronic pain, and he was extraordinarily argumentative - a trait that clearly chipped away at his popularity in the army.

But Bragg's prickly personality has at least provided Civil War historians and enthusiasts a swell story to share at parties. Because...everyone likes a good Braxton Bragg story. Ulysses S. Grant recalled Bragg in his memoirs and related a funny little story that should amuse anyone. In the prewar army, Bragg had once been both a company commander and the company quartermaster. As company commander he made an official request to the company quartermaster (himself) for some sort of supply. As quartermaster he denied said request and returned an official explanation for doing so in writing. As company commander he returned the favor arguing that he was entitled to his request. Quartermaster Bragg persisted (again in writing) on denying company commander Bragg's request, at which point company commander Bragg solicited the intervention of his superior officer - presumably to head off any further escalation of the argument. Bragg's commander - mystified by the exchange, declared "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself."

This story may indeed be apocryphal. But even if that is the case, it is probably at least close to the truth....and illustrative of Bragg's general disposition.



Friday, May 25, 2012

A Cosmic America Response to Gary Gallagher on Blogging

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I have at long last read Gary Gallagher's recent assessment of Civil War blogging in Blue & Gray. Naturally, like many of my fellow bloggers, I am chomping at the bit to weigh in with a response. Full disclosure: Gary was my dissertation adviser at the University of Virginia, and I have a tendency to agree with (much of...although not all of) what he says. This also means that I can attest to his lack of technological know-how. While I have seen him use a cell phone (an effort for which he was enthusiastically and ruthlessly mocked by yours truly), his admission, "I resist technological innovation of almost all kinds" is hardly an exaggeration.

Gallagher confesses to being a Luddite when it comes to this exponentially expanding  medium, a confession that has led some in the blogosphere to at least imply that he is unqualified to render a critique. Not so. You don't need to be an expert or avid participant in the various media to offer criticism or even question their usefulness. And for a Luddite, he seems to have perused a number of diverse blogs ranging from those given to shameless self importance to others that offer useful information concerning recent publications, unpublished documents, battles, leadership, etc. These categories (and I am not the first to point this out) could just as easily be a reflection of traditional academic publishing  - a format equally diverse.

I am troubled by one particular statement:  "many bloggers delight in pointing out that academic historians — often pilloried as hopeless elitists — have lost much of their former control over the dissemination of historical information." I am troubled because he is heading in the right direction. One cannot escape an us vs. them theme embedded in the blogoshpere. As a greater number of individuals join the blogging community an attitude has infused the medium suggesting to this avid observer that an effort is under way for the voice of the people to supplant the voice of the elite.

But there is something more to add. Is blogging the ultimate in the democratization of history? Gallagher thinks so and I certainly agree. But have academic historians lost their control over dissemination as many claim? Bloggers who in self-congratulatory fashion think that they have dethroned those safely ensconced in the Ivory Tower have sadly missed the point.

Blogging offers the perfect opportunity to bridge the gulf between academics and an informed public. What is happening is not a transfer of power, so to speak, but the beginnings of what may indeed be a paradigm shift in higher education: the scarcity of access is becoming a thing of the past. Academic historians and the public - thanks to the Internet - together have a platform for the mutual exchange of ideas that was once reserved for university professors and their students. Blogging is a vital component in this exchange. If I am correct, and I am an optimist of the highest caliber, blogging combined with the savvy use of social media will act (and is acting) as a humanities accelerant. New ideas, testable data and conclusions, and innovative access to the historical record are instantaneous - if not nearly so. And the work is in many ways collaborative - a primary researcher or author often has immediate feedback.

My own work has already greatly benefited from the blog component of the Cosmic America Civil War multi-media network. I have found scraps of the historical record, written about it with analysis, suggestive research directions, and calls to action, broadcast it around the world, and been happily rewarded with further suggestions, ideas, and pieces of the puzzle - sometimes within minutes. Without question, the wingnuts, crackpots, and yahoos offer their commentary too (I have, for instance, been derided by a group of Alabama white supremacists as a "Yankee metrosexual in purple sunglasses" among other less flattering things) but their useless commentary can easily be dismissed.

Blogging is a great way to get recognition or Internet "fame" (Cosmic America receives thousands of hits every few days - and is growing faster than I ever imagined it would). But more important - it provides an intellectual space, in essence resembling classroom, conference, or roundtable discussion, but big enough to accommodate all who wish to attend.

I suspect that Gary will never join the Civil War blogging ranks, but you never know. Hell, I'll even set one up for him (gratis) and get him started. Wishful thinking perhaps? We'll see.



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Descendents of Union Veterans...Clear Your Calendars for August 9-11!

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I was poking around on the Internet last night researching records and newspapers relating to the Grand Army of the Republic in California (especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco) and look what I found. The GAR Allied Orders will be holding their National Encampment this summer right in my very own City of Angels!

To attend, you have to belong to one of the associated groups. Since my ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I had to enlist the help of my friends and Facebook....and it looks like I can join a SUVCW camp as an associate member and go.

I'll be in San Francisco the week prior running a marathon and checking out some GAR records at Berkeley for a few days, so I will be back in LA in just enough time to dig deep into some Civil War commemorative activity. I hope to meet and speak with SUVCW members from western posts and find out as much as I can about their GAR comrade ancestors who moved to the West Coast. This, of course, is the subject of my next book.

Hope to see you there!



Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What Do You Really Think of the President, General McClellan?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

George B. McClellan was not a man without virtues. He was bright, ambitious, a snappy dresser, and charismatic. His men adored him and Mrs. McClellan thought he was charming at parties. He turned the army of the Potomac from a disorganized mess into a well-fed, well-clothed, well-disciplined fighting force the likes of which have never been equaled.

He had his faults as well. Mathematics was not his strong suit - he had a tendency to count 3 to every 1 Confederate in his front. His unwillingness to use the magnificent army he so meticulously built drove his commander-in-chief to distraction, and he had a hyper-inflated sense of self importance that rivaled some of the academics I know.

He thought his superior Winfield Scott was in the way and he referred to Lincoln as the "original gorilla" and "nothing more than a well-meaning baboon" in public. No one could tell Little Mac his he informed the President, "he could do it all." My favorite anecdote revealing his ego-maniacal tendencies involves what may be one of the greatest snubs in presidential history. In November 1861, shortly after McClellan was promoted to general-in-chief of all United States forces, President Lincoln, secretary of state William Seward, and presidential secretary John Hay paid a visit to McClellan's house to discuss strategy. The presidential party was informed that the general was out and invited to wait. Within an hour, McClellan returned and was told by his porter that the president awaited. Without a word, he adjourned to his room. Another half hour transpired until at last McClellan sent word to the patient guests that he had gone to bed and that should they wish to speak with him, they could return another time.


It seems that McClellan forgot that he had a boss. Lincoln was not outwardly offended...putting etiquette and obnoxious behavior aside. Still, Lincoln never returned to speak with McClellan at home (he did visit him in the field) and eventually thought that he could not do it all, or anything really, and relieved him of command altogether. See how far a giant ego can get you?



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Free City

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Whenever I hear the expression "Free City" I think of two things (in no particular order) 1) I think of the Free City retail store on Highland Blvd in Hollywood that features tee-shirts, sweatpants, and hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with any number of catchy phrases and range in price from $100 to upwards of several hundred dollars. These items are great for uber-stylish hill-dwelling moms and dads with more money than sense who like to slum it with their strollers around Griffith Park  in performative style- garbed in the bissonata of the apathetic chic. As silly as that is, I have to hand it to the designer - anyone who can get someone to spend $300 on what most people would wear to do their laundry is a genius.

2) I think of Fernando Wood.

Fernando Wood was a powerful Democratic Party politician and the mayor of New York City during the secession crisis. He was extremely troubled by the thought of the southern states seceding form the Union. Wood was opposed to the Republican Party platform and most particularly their stance against slavery - he believed, or at least argued, like many of his southern countrymen, that although Lincoln promised not to go after slavery where it already existed, it would only be a matter of time before abolition was the order of the day. But in the immediate sense, Wood was concerned with economic factors. New York City businesses did a great deal of trade with destinations south of the Mason-Dixon. Secession and war would mean an end to that trade...and of course, an end to many of Gotham's business interests. Wood proposed something of a secession movement himself - not to join the Confederacy per se, but to establish Manhattan as a free city, allied with neither side and open, as it were, for business with both. Wood had a number of supporters from the extreme faction of the Democratic Party but in the end New York Democrats thought he was pushing the issue too far. Wood's proposal was associated with treason and he was not reelected. Although he publicly hated Lincoln, Wood eventually supported the war effort once shot were fired - encouraging the formation of regiments, the raising of funds, and other war related activities.

So the next time I give a talk on New York City or Fernando Wood, I'll be sure to wear one of my Free City tee-shirts and see if anyone notices. And you can rest assured, I have enough sense not to pay hundreds of dollars for a tee-shirt. I got mine gratis. It pays to have connections, I suppose.



Monday, May 21, 2012

Bad News in the West

Greetings Cosmic Americans

As we rocket toward June, 2012 I would like to point out just how bad things were for the Confederacy 150 years ago..especially in the western theater. I do so not to explore the vast details of the military operation in the first handful of months in 1862, but to ponder with great interest the tenacity of the Confederate population. Despite some of the worst possible news they held firmly to their cause.

So here is the bad news roll call for 1862:

February - Forts Henry and Donelson fall to Union forces through a combined US Army and Navy operation. Nashville, a major Confederate industrial center, also falls to Union forces

April - Confederates suffer crushing loss at Shiloh, Albert Sidney Johnson, a man to whom people looked for military victories, is dead. PGT Beauregard relieves himself of command due to illness, US navy captures New Orleans

May - Corinth, a vital rail center in Mississippi, falls to Union forces.

June - Memphis, a major port city on the Mississippi River, falls to Union forces.

So...the Confederate losses piled up pretty high in the West in the first half of 1862. Two of the biggest cities in the South - gone. The upper and lower reaches of the Mississippi River - gone. Vital shipping, communication, rail, and industrial centers - gone. The two highest ranking Confederates in the West - dead or incapacitated. Jefferson Davis was at something of a loss for what to do, and the situation was not looking so great in the East either for much of 1862...Joseph E. Johnston slowly retreating toward Richmond, with George B. McClellan cautiously following. The only bright spot for the Confederacy at this point was Stonewall's aggressive maneuvers in the Shenandoah Valley. Of course, we know that militarily, events would soon change dramatically with the ascension of Robert E. Lee in the East and the battles of late June.  But we'll have to wait for another post for that. Until then, if anyone is attending sesquicentennial events in the western theater - please send a full report.



[caption id="attachment_2729" align="aligncenter" width="694" caption="The annihilation of the Rebel fleet - June 6, 1862"][/caption]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Way Around to the Right: Lee and Longstreet in the Film, Gettysburg

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I write often about Ron Maxwell's 1993 film, Gettysburg. Based on Michael Shaara's novel, Killer Angels, the story follows the paths of a number of Confederate and Union commanders as they fight it out for three days in Southern Pennsylvania. My interest in the film is twofold. One, I am fascinated by the power of the medium to act as teacher - establishing for many the final word on what actually happened, what should have happened, who deserves blame for defeat and praise for victory. You can read an example of my previous writing on this subject HERE. Second, I never get enough of how utterly ridiculous various recreations of historical actors' persona and appearance can be when translated to the screen. HERE is a healthy dose of good-natured ribbing leveled at the Gettysburg make-up team.

Today I speak of the former fascination: specifically, the contention in the film between Robert E. Lee and his senior commander, James Longstreet. From the onset of the engagement, Longstreet argues that Lee should maneuver his army around the Federal right, get between the Union army and Washington City, and draw the Yankees into a fight on ground of their choosing.

Seems simple enough - and if you ignore everything that was going on, it even makes sense. The problem is that there were a number of factors that the film (not to mention Longstreet) gives either short shrift or does not consider at all. First, The fight had commenced in the Confederates' favor - it is a bad idea to disengage when victory is within an army's grasp (keep in mind...Lee left his crystal ball back in Virginia, so he had no idea what was coming next) Second, who was going to screen any movement around the entire Federal army? The Union II, V, and XII corps were still on the move on July 1 - the exact location unknown. Further, Jeb Stuart's Confederate cavalry was missing in action and not available for screening duty anyway. Third, Lee's army had wagons trains and a supply line stretching all the way back to South Mountain. What would he have done with that? The Rebels attacked initially from the north, Longstreet's proposed movement would have cut loose a vital part of the Army of Northern Virginia.

These points (admittedly offered with only brief explanation) have been debated and clarified in any number of excellent treatments on the battle (Coddington and Pfanz come immediately to mind). But my point is not to prove Longstreet wrong or Lee right, but to offer an example of a film persuading a viewing public without the consideration of analysis.

Where did the modern popular Pete Longstreet appeal come from, anyway? Back in the 1880s, Longstreet got in a lot of hot water with the Confederate unreconstructed types for voicing his Gettysburg beef with Lee in print. A great controversy ensued leaving Longstreet something of a hated figure in the South. Instead of people jumping on Old Pete's bandwagon and agreeing that Lee should have gone along with his lieutenant's voice of reason, they condemned him for failing to execute Lee's plan as ordered. In this scenario, Longstreet lost the battle...and the war.

Well, Longstreet may have moped around the battlefield for a few days in July, but solely to blame one man for defeat is something a shade more than problematic. But Longstreet, despite his lot as Confederate pariah in the decades following the war, need not have worried too much about his reputation in the long run. Thanks to Shaara and Maxwell, there has been a great resurgence in Longstreetists, who...owing at least partly to his projection on a bigger than life screen, can see as clear as day that Longstreet was the wiser of the two commanders. His disciples number much greater than in decades past. There is even a post-film Longstreet statue on the Gettysburg battlefield (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Tom Berenger, just in case you missed the whole power of media point).

So, whether you agree with me or not, see Gettysburg. Then I suggest you think carefully about Longstreet's plan before you dismiss Lee's as folly, misguided, or whatever. Lee had every reason to believe that he would win in Pennsylvania - his army had more than once done the seemingly impossible against staggering odds. They were on a roll, so to speak, and had momentum to their advantage.



Friday, May 18, 2012

That's Real Stuff!

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In May 1912, the Confederate Memorial Association began construction of the Confederate Memorial Institute, what would soon be know as the "Battle Abbey." In the cornerstone, members of the association placed a copper box - sealed with lead solder and containing a number of Confederate artifacts and papers relating to the association. There it sat until Virginia Historical Society's vice president Nelson Lankford went looking for it. The Abbey had since become a part of the much bigger VHS facility. The box and its contents - penetralia if you like - had been more or less forgotten until Lankford discovered a list of items supposedly preserved in the old Abbey's cornerstone.

It did not take long for architects to figure out the location of the old cornerstone, now in a corner of the "The Story of Virginia" exhibit. VHS president and CEO Paul Levengood got to extract the box from the hole in the wall himself. Apparently, the VHS staff was all giddy with excitement.

Here is what the Confederate Memorial Association thought future historians would find useful: newspapers, photographs, postcards, architectural drawings, construction contracts, Civil War signatures and records, a 5-by-5-inch Confederate battle flag, a delegate's pin for the 1912 United Confederate Veterans reunion and even papers pertaining to a lawsuit over fundraising. Upon examination, senior archivist Lee Shepard noted, "That's real stuff from the real time period."

Never has a more astute comment resounded from the hallowed halls of the former Confederate shrine. It was indeed "real stuff," and something that might be of use to historians concerned with Civil War memory. What CMA officials chose to place in their sealed box tells us a great deal about what they wanted future observers to think about their failed bid for independence. It is just as telling to note what they did not place in the box. As far as I can tell, documents relating to any potentially troubling issues, for example, are not to be found. Perhaps, given the time frame and historical context of the battles then waging to determine the terms national reconciliation, CMA leadership though it best to distance their cause from certain contentions of the 1860s - or maybe those things just slipped their minds for a few minutes in all the corner-stone laying excitement.

At any rate, the "real stuff" is now part of the vast VHS archive...they even left the hole in the wall - at least for now. I am certain visitors will want to know more about it. I certainly would.  I am also glad that Lankford saw the search and uncover project to its conclusion. Any chance to understand what former Confederates were thinking is one worth taking.



Thursday, May 17, 2012

Name the Historian Who Most Influenced You

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So, who was it? I ask this question from time to time on the C.A. Facebook page and Twitter...purely out of curiosity. I am not developing any thesis or historiographical essay, I just want to know.

I find it interesting that a handful of names come up repeatedly. David Potter set the bar for excellence for many professional historians, and of course Bruce Catton's magnificent prose is unmatched (one person referred to Catton as the "gateway drug" for Civil War history...I found that to be about right). Barbara Tuchman taught one person (on this last round of inquiries) that women could write compelling history, and, to rocket us into to the twenty-first century, fellow blogger Brooks Simpson got a few tips o' the hat (despite his love of the NY Yankees). Allan Bogue, Albert Castel, and James Robertson made the list this time out as well.

So I ask again - who influenced you the most?


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Robert Russa Moton and the Lincoln Memorial Dedication

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In 1922, at the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., President Warren G. Harding noted that Lincoln ended slavery only to save the Union, not to usher in a new period of racial equality. He further noted the reconciliatory symbolism of the memorial's site - directly across the Potomac from Virginia. The event itself, as one historian has argued, became a "microcosm for the strained race relations of the day, marked by the rhetoric of good intentions and the behavior of bigotry."

And thus we have an example of an event designed for the  reconciliation minded that distanced the cause of Union from the cause of freedom. In fact there was only one speaker of color that day - Robert Russa Moton, Booker T. Washington's successor at the Tuskegee Institute. In a fashion that can only be characterized as patronizing, event coordinators had asked Moton to "speak for his race." But the final draft of his speech would have to pass the close scrutiny of those planning the event. And in the end, heavy editing of Moton's "controversial" material rendered the speech mostly benign. Here is what Moton wanted to say:

[caption id="attachment_2683" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Robert Russa Moton"][/caption]

So long as any group is denied the fullest privilege of a citizen to share both the making and the execution of the law which shapes its destiny - so long as any group does not enjoy every right and every privilege that belongs to every American citizen without regard to race, creed or color, the task for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion - that task is still unfinished. 

Heated words for a racially charged decade to be sure...excised from Moton's speech. In many cases, national events such as these specifically designed to ease any sectional tensions were devoid of such troubling language - and I offer this one as an example. But I would like to remind my dear readers that such events were not typical of dedication ceremonies on the larger scale. In both the North and South, sectionally aligned events were more often than not laced with controversy.



Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cosmic America is Under Construction

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

For the next day or so, I will be working on a whole new look for Cosmic America. The content will be the same - but the feel will be much more streamlined and user friendly - with links to all of the C.A. projects. Check back soon - and I hope you like the new site.







For the nostalgic among us - I offer a screenshot of the old blog home page.



Saturday, May 12, 2012

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. and the "Historical Keynote"

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. had two presidents in his lineage. His father was the United States minister to England. The younger Adams had attended Harvard and at the beginning of the war was practicing law. In December 1861, Adams was commissioned first lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry and eventually fought at Antietam and Gettysburg. In July 1864, Adams rose in rank to lieutenant colonel in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry - an African American unit that fought at Petersburg and elsewhere.

On March 4, 1865, Adams found himself in Washington City - as the war drew to a close, he was eager to hear the president's second inaugural address. Writing to his father a few days later, he had this to say: "That rail splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day. Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour ...This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of this war."

I would certainly agree with Adams. What do you think?



Thursday, May 10, 2012

Finger Lickin' Dead

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

[caption id="attachment_2584" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Well love him HELL!!"][/caption]I saw this video a while back posted at Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory - and it seemed like time that I shared it here as well. So what do you know - when Mel Gibson isn't being a misogynistic anti-Semite, he actually has a sense of humor.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Archaeology is Always Destructive

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The axiom about archaeology is true enough. But in this case it has led to what some note as a troubling conundrum. Imagine the discovery of traces of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. Without question - a site worth uncovering, dissecting, and cataloging. But what if archeologists had to destroy the remnants of some Confederate earthworks to get at it? That is precisely what is happening. The traces of Confederate Fort Pocahontas sit directly on top of and next to the early settlement's Fort James, an enclosure originally encompassing a little over an acre.

Sites related to two central episodes in American history are thus in conflict. According to an article in the Washington Post, "because much of the original fort is buried underneath a Confederate earthwork...these discoveries forced a painful historical and archaeological trade-off. To reveal James Fort, nearly half of Fort Pocahontas has been removed. In the process, invaluable traces of America’s founding have been discovered right next to remains from the Civil War. 'It’s probably the only place you would have a story like that,' says Colin Campbell, president of Colonial Williamsburg, citing the conjunction of two pivotal moments in U.S. history. 'I think it’s absolutely fascinating.'"

In the process of cutting away the Civil War fort, archeologists have unearthed a number of valuable discoveries, such as a remarkably preserved bomb proof, complete with period log supports and sandbags. And, the site is being digitally mapped in 3-D, so it is not completely lost - sort of.

Archeologists based the decision to remove the Confederate fort on its relative insignificance during the war. And, quite obviously, the profound significance of what lies beneath it. While I am generally opposed to destroying any of the few remaining Civil War sites that have not already succumbed to strip malls and other unsightly suburban sprawl, in this case I will side with the Jamestown archeologists. As they say, they are not just digging arbitrarily, and I believe their cause worthwhile in the overall scheme of things. What are your thoughts?



Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The War Through the Eyes of Battlefield Artists

[caption id="attachment_2557" align="alignleft" width="206" caption="National Geographic, May 2012"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

By now we are certainly accustomed to seeing the nation's iconic publications feature a Civil War related cover or series. Time magazine, the New York Times, and the list goes on. After all, we are in the midst of the sesquicentennial and Civil War history has worked its way in to media, popular culture, and maybe even water cooler discussions at the office. I was recently asked by a member of the National Geographic staff to feature and weigh in on an article in their May 2012 Civil War issue.

The article - "A Sketch in Time," by Harry Katz -  reviews briefly the lives of Civil War sketch artists - known on both sides of the conflict as "specials." Katz has published a soon-to-be-released book on the subject - noted as a "landmark collection of rare and sensational images of the Civil War" - so let's consider the article as something of a warning shot.

Katz makes a number of compelling statements suggesting that specials endured the same privations as did a typical Civil War soldier - they came under fire, sustained injuries, and risked death - all to provide the realistic images of combat, life on the march and in camp, and other activities to an eager and anxious public. While at times he ventures down the problematic path of anachronistic language and comparisons - noting that specials were "embedded" with troops (a term they would not have used) and making tenuous connections to war correspondents in Afghanistan - Katz ultimately opens the door for a look at the men behind the work with which we are all quite familiar. Such peccadilloes can thus be forgiven.

In comparison, we know a great deal about the work of Civil War photographers such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. But technological insufficiencies rendered their work somewhat incomplete. The artists providing the action - what Civil War era cameras could not do - for publications such as Frank Leslie's Illustrated and Harper's Weekly have gone largely unnoticed. Katz's work is a welcome addition.

Below is an excerpt from the article - you can access the full story here.

At the time of the Civil War, camera shutters were too slow to record movement sharply. Celebrated photographers such as Mathew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan, encumbered by large glass negatives and bulky horse-drawn processing wagons, could neither maneuver the rough terrain nor record images in the midst of battle. So newspaper publishers hired amateur and professional illustrators to sketch the action for readers at home and abroad. Embedded with troops on both sides of the conflict, these “special artists,” or “specials,” were America’s first pictorial war correspondents. They were young men (none were women) from diverse backgrounds—soldiers, engineers, lithographers and engravers, fine artists, and a few veteran illustrators—seeking income, experience, and adventure.

In spite of the remarkable courage these men displayed and the events they witnessed, their stories have gone unnoticed: Virginia native son and Union supporter D. H. Strother’s terrifying assignment sketching the Confederate Army encampments outside Washington, D.C., which got him arrested as a spy; Theodore Davis’s dangerously ill-conceived sojourn into Dixie in the summer of 1861 (he was detained and accused of spying); W. T. Crane’s heroic coverage of Charleston, South Carolina, from within the Rebel city; Alfred Waud’s detention by a company of Virginia cavalry (after he sketched a group portrait, they let him go); Frank Vizetelly’s eyewitness chronicle of Jefferson Davis’s final flight into exile.

[caption id="attachment_2573" align="aligncenter" width="949" caption="BATTLE OF FAIR OAKS, VIRGINIA, JUNE 3, 1862; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Union soldiers bury their comrades and burn their horses after the Battle of Fair Oaks. Alfred Waud, on assignment as a "special artist" for Harper's Weekly, sketched the grim scene."][/caption]

To view the National Geographic May 2012 Civil War artist photo gallery, click here.



Monday, May 7, 2012

Reunion and Reconciliation - There is a Difference, You Know

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I often make mention of two significant books in the historiographical timeline of Civil War remembrance: Paul Buck's Road to Reunion and David Blight's Race and Reunion.  Both (quite obviously) mention the word reunion in the title and then proceed to discuss at length, especially the latter title, the process of reconciliation - it is as if the two words mean the same thing. In fact, if one were to immerse themselves in the literature on post-war commemoration and general remembrance they might indeed arrive at this conclusion - a synonymous marriage of definition...reunion and reconciliation. The words even sort of appear interchangeable...or at least convey a sense of starting anew in tandem.

The two words are related but not interchangeable. But we are dealing with more than mere shades of meaning. From the perspective of the Civil War generation - those who fought and those who lived through it - reunion simply meant the coming together of individual states, previously united under one government, subsequent to a protracted war. It was a reality sealed by the final surrenders of Confederate armies, the dissolution of the Confederate national government, and the forced suppression of a domestic rebellion. Reconciliation, in contrast, was an experiential action undertaken by the participants of that war (military and civilian). The word implies general forgiveness, but in the context of the Civil War era, refers more pointedly to a general acceptance that those once warring parties were again fellow citizens. The promotion of reconciliation acknowledged a sense of unity – a sense of sectional healing. Veterans willingly, often enthusiastically committed to embracing an all-encompassing national identity – an identity as Americans, one and all. Ultimately, national politics depended on reconciliation; economic expediency rested on it. So veterans from both sides of the bloody chasm set out to craft a message of reconciliation from the scattered shards of disunion.  In so doing, they preserved the memories of their ideals, their trials, and their respective causes.

Their speeches, parades, monument dedications, and literature reflecting on the war provided the means through which they articulated visions of reconciliation – visions that in essence mirrored the causes for which they had fought. Veterans’ reconciliationist views were in fact colored by their experiences of war, the issues that had been at stake, and their respective causes. They at once promoted reconciliation and reminded their audiences that only one side had been right. Their challenge was how best to situate former enemies within these commemorative contexts.

While scholars such as Blight (and his legion of proponents) have blurred the distinction between the two, I offer terms of separation - and clear definitions. Presuming of course that one agrees with my definitions, we might proceed with caution when we use them, and keep in mind how the veterans made the distinction between the two.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Road to Reunion - Paul Buck's Spin

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Historians speak often about the storied "road to reconciliation" after the Civil War. I, as you all probably know, have spent the last ten years talking about it, and I do not think that I will relenting any time soon.

The scholarly approach - at least how many understand it - is part of the foundation of the history and memory cottage industry that has been a hot topic for the last couple of decades.

The approach (most famously argued by Yale historian David Blight) boils down to a few simple lines. Reconciliation came at the expense of what was promised by Union victory. Black people - slavery and emancipation - were essentially whitewashed out of the war's memory. The Civil War was thus commemorated on southern terms. You can find out why I do not necessarily agree with this idea by doing a simple search for "reconciliation" right here on Cosmic America.

But Blight's take is only new in that is casts a negative light on effort by both by sides to reconcile. Others...earlier in the twentieth century, drew similar conclusions - although they were celebrating reconciliation in the process.

Among the first to assess the implications of reconciliation, Paul H. Buck tendered an affirming appraisal of veterans’ efforts despite the overt racism apparent at commemorative gatherings. In 1937, his The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900 lauded the “positive influences” paving the way for the “promise of ultimate peace” and applauded the breakdown of sectional animosity during the postwar years. He nevertheless admitted that reconciliation ushered in a “period where [black people] would no longer figure as the ward of the nation to be singled out for special guardianship or peculiar treatment.” Buck paid tribute to reconciliation but observed “the tremendous reversal of opinion” regarding freed people.

Just a few thoughts - I'll be back tomorrow to explain why I think the words "reunion" and "reconciliation" should not be used interchangeably. They may seem like the same thing - but guess what, they are not.