Sunday, September 30, 2012

Worse Than Slavery

I am teaching this image in my course on Reconstruction this winter. Note the individuals: a black family cowers beneath the clasping hands of the White League and the KKK. In the distance a lynched man hangs from a tree. The captions read: "The Union as it Was," "This is a White Man's Government," "The Lost Cause,"  and "Worse than Slavery." What are your thoughts?

Friday, September 28, 2012

To My Old Master

Jourdan Anderson, a freedman from Tennessee, had plenty to say to former master. In August 1865, from his new home in Ohio, Anderson dictated a letter to Colonel P. H. Anderson of Big Springs dictating a few terms for his potential future employment and other arrangements. How things change over the course of a few years. As dictated:

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the[266] folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq.,[267] Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

Monday, September 24, 2012

Debating Emancipation

Last summer, at the Civil War Institute in Gettysburg, I participated on a number of panels concerning emancipation, blogging, Lincoln, and the war in 1862. C-Span was there, cameras at the ready - just in case anyone said anything interesting. This is a shot from the panel, Debating Emancipation, which included myself, Kevin Levin, Anne Marshall, Craig Symonds, and Glenn David Brasher. I really hope they air the blogging panel as well. I had a great time on that one.

You can watch the video HERE. It is a shade over one hour - so get comfortable.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Worst Civil War Era Film Ever

Last night, I discovered that The Conspirator was available on Amazon Instant Video. Huzzah, I thought. Having the house to myself, I figured it a perfect time to enjoy a Civil War era film.

I made it through twenty minutes and turned it off.

Keep in mind, I have never walked out on or turned off any Civil War film. Ever. And I have sat through Gods and Generals TWICE. Clearly I am committed to Hollywood's take on this epic historical event. But I just could not stomach this wretched piece of rubbish.

If the first twenty minutes were any indication of things to come in the rest of the film, then I suppose I would have been treated to more over-wrought testaments to "American" jurisprudence - the right to a trial by one's peers and the notion of innocence before guilt can be established without any element of doubt. Thanks for the elementary lesson in  law.

But wait, there are more lessons to be learned here. Yes - Mary Surratt was indeed a woman. Her implication in the murder of Abraham Lincoln and her subsequent execution were shocking to be sure. Thanks for the elementary lesson in nineteenth-century gender assumptions.

The problem, at least in the first few scenes that I could watch, is that both of these issues are of great significance - then and now - and they were glossed over in a tisk-tisk fashion only after dripping a taste of sickening "look-at-how-we've-progressed-but-there's-still-work-to-be-done" syrup on for good measure. And even this was done so in a mumbly dead-pan stumble fest. Such nonsense can only amount to some of the worst writing, the worst acting, the worst directing, or a combination of the three. I would have been more riveted watching a plate of white toast get stale as time slowly, painfully passed.

Not that the film was completely lacking in merits. I got a bit of a chuckle at the actor who played (with all the southern-Gothic styling of a junior high production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) John Wilkes Booth. His brutish pronunciation of the Virginia state motto in the Ford's Theatre scene - sic semper tyrannis - was delightful. I suppose this was merely an effort to "southernize" or if you like, "Rebelize" the president's assassin (who was a classically trained actor), by giving him a slightly raspier Jethro Bodine-esque accent. Such clumsy and obvious efforts make me laugh.

But who knows? Maybe the utter brilliance of rest of the film made up for the first twenty minutes. I will never know. Perhaps it got slightly less patronizingly preachy. Maybe there was a musical number. Maybe robots. If anyone has seen the whole thing, chime in.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Men Who Built America

This morning, on my daily run down the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, I noticed a new billboard a few blocks east of the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. As I ran by, I thought to the History Channel going to take a stab at history? Yes indeed...move over Pawn Stars and Swamp People, the History Channel is gearing up to air an all-new series: The Men Who Built America. According to the History Channel website, this series will chronicle the lives of a handful of industrial tycoons - John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan - as they rise from obscurity to their positions as the world's most powerful and influential men, "building" America into a post Civil War superpower as they go along...and affecting every single person in the world as they do it.

I have made no secret about my disappointment with the directions the History Channel has gone over the years. I have attempted to engage them in a programming discussion via Twitter to no avail, and I have written an unanswered call to action right HERE on Cosmic America. I guess their programming developer(s) do not really care what this historian thinks. Fair enough - lots of people don't care what I think.

I am very interested how they handle this one. They have a real opportunity - in prime time - to develop the complexities of the men and the era through the experiences of some of those who stood at the top of the industrial mountain. I am hoping they do not travel down the easy and all-too-familiar road to hagiography. Captains of industry were heroes of enterprise to be sure and greatly admired by many. But they were humans, capable of errors in judgment and possessing tragic flaws. We'll see how the history unfolds when the series airs But hey - if this show doesn't work out they could always try out a few other ideas. Dear History Channel, if you please, may I offer a trio of suggestions:


or better still...


or if you really want to hit home...



I know, I know. I am having fun at the poor History Channel's expense before I have even seen their program. But you have to admit, they make it pretty easy. And historically speaking (yes, pun intended) their attempts on real history have been pretty weak in the past. But in the spirit of hope, I will not really pass judgement on this show until I have had a chance to sit down and see what they come up with. Then of course, the gloves come off.



Monday, September 17, 2012

A Letter From Antietam Creek

Today, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, is a day of reflection for many. We all know the battle's significance - it was the bloodiest single day in American history and the Union victory provided Lincoln with a much needed military success prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. 22,000 fell dead or wounded and the battle changed the nature of the war. Roll that over in your mind.

But rather than offer my analysis on this day - as so many others are likely to do, I thought a soldier's reflections on the battle would be better. I came across this letter on an antique store website - I do not know the author. The sentiments expressed are typical. He thanks God for sparing his life, expresses patriotism, and tries to explain to his sister, who cannot possibly understand battle, that war is a serious business.

The Field
Antietam Creek
Sept 22nd,1862

Dear Sister -

                    I have just been through two hard fought battles and God has spared my life and again permitted me once more to again seat myself enjoying the same good health that I have ever enjoyed since I enlisted to write once more to you and I take great pleasure in so doing.  We have been in camp for two or three days resting from our hard marching and fighting.  We have had hard fare, nothing to eat while marching but hard tacks and water.  I tell you I am good for it I have stood it first rate.  I tell you what good courage and love of country will keep a man up a good while after he thinks he can do no more.  And after giving the rebels such a whipping as they have got on the Sacred Soil of Maryland I dont think we ought to disprond.  Still I feel bad to think of the lives that have been lost - and the many homes made desolate by the two late battles in which our regiment as well as others have been engage in But - I have been spared through them both without a scratch and I feel thankful to God for his great goodness in thus saving my life when it did not seem as though many of us could live to get out of it - I have thought it over a great deal and I have thought I should live to come back and with your help I hope it may be so but - still we cannot tell how it will be.  There is some talk that our regiment is agoing back to Washington to drill some more but I dont believe it for our regiment got a good deal of praise with the rest from Gen Sturgis who said the carrying of Antietam Bridge saved the battle of last Wednesday and covered our troops with glory.  But I think in the first battle that we were engaged on Sunday the 14th of Sept - we have one thing to mourn for and that is in the death of so noble a man and officer as Gen Reno he was a man that feared no danger was ever ready to lead on his men to the charge and I think his loss will be greatly felt by our devision which he commanded he had only passed through our Co and gone a little way before was killed.  I write Father a good long letter telling him all about the late battles that we have been engaged in and if he receives it I dont think it would be worth a while to tell it over again although perhaps there are many things I could not tell you in writing for the want of room and time to do it.  I believe I did not tell Father that our Lt Col was wounded in the shoulder not very bad though

Not exactly a sweeping narrative invoking the "crossroads of freedom" theme, but a valuable letter nonetheless.




Friday, September 14, 2012

Trailer for Spielberg's Lincoln

Okay - I am certainly on board with this film. But I always imagined Lincoln emphasizing the object of the preposition in the Gettysburg Address in this fashion:  "of the people, by the people, for the people" as opposed to the preposition itself as in "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Let the nitpicking begin.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Civil War Monitor (temporarily) Gratis for Cosmic Americans!

That's right - Terry Johnston, the editor of the outstanding publication, Civil War Monitor, is offering temporary free access to the magazine's digital edition for Cosmic America readers. If you are part of the CA Inner Circle, you were notified a while back that yours truly has an article in the CWM fall issue - all about Confederates in the trenches at Petersburg, and how they thought they would eventually strike a decisive blow against Grant's army. The title of the piece is taken from a Rebel's letter home: "Grant, Your Cause Is Ruin."

You can purchase this issue at your local newsstand and read to your heart's content - or - you can subscribe and read it online, which should appeal to the technologically savvy among us. And for the next week or so - you can do so at no charge. I am quite certain that you will love CWM so much that you will subscribe when the free offer expires.

So - go HERE and check it out.

user name: cosmic
password: america

See how easy that is!

While you are at it, you should like their Facebook page - so you can keep up with all the goings on and announcements and such.

The table of contents for this issue is pictured below. As you can see, I am in good company!


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Calling for Reconstruction Era Documents

Yesterday, through the usual social media channels, I noted that I am currently in the process of compiling a comprehensive collection of documents pertaining to the Reconstruction Era.

The collection will span the years 1862 to 1877 and will be arranged thematically. A master list will provide links to each individual document. Once compiled, I will post the list here for anyone's use - and will update it regularly as I transcribe new material or I become aware of available online sources.

The collection is intended for supplementary reading for a course on Reconstruction history I am teaching this winter, but in the spirit of making Cosmic America a valuable resource, I figured I would share the collection with the world.

For now, I am asking for links to documents on the Internet. I am looking for political papers, letters, diary entries, and especially first-hand accounts. Document ranging from THIS to THIS to THIS are perfect for my purposes. This should be a collaborative effort - please spread the word on Facebook, Twitter, and wherever you see fit. Your help will further illustrate the significance of social media in the world of higher education (in case you were not already aware of how things are changing).

Thanks in advance,


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nathan Bedford Forrest and Civil War Memory

The tumultuous battles over who controls Civil War memory are still alive and well - especially if you are thinking about the new monument to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest - soon to be installed in Selma, Alabama.

Naturally, protestors and detractors from around the country have weighed in against the monument. Noting a couple of glaring facts such as Forrest's prewar occupation trading slaves, his implication in the Fort Pillow Massacre, and his tenure as the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, many have been moved to simply wonder why anyone would want to honor such a man with a monument.

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans see Forrest in a different light. Their Forrest is a man of resolute loyalty to the cause, a man with no military experience who rose to a level of skill and competence matching some of the greatest military heroes of the Confederacy. Novelist Shelby Foote once referred to him as a "genius" comparable to Abraham Lincoln.

Some call him a murderer - others call him a hero. There is no gray area (so to speak). Some Forrest apologists applaud his involvement with a "kinder and gentler" version of Klan as part of an effort to bring law and order to a disrupted South. Hmmmmm. And the monument, say members of the SCV, will go in as planned despite detractors' vows to stop it.

How people remember the Civil War has certainly changed in the last several decades. Not long ago, protests against installing a Forrest monument would have been much less virulent - if they occurred at all. Today's reflections on the war - during the sesquicentennial - are tending to lean in many ways away from the "white only" ceremonies of the early to mid-twentieth century. Slavery, emancipation, race, and racism are deeply embedded in the twenty-first century commemorative ethos and it seems like Confederate heritage groups are losing their grip on commemoration broadly defined. While these groups have never dominated northern Civil War memory (despite what you might read) it now seems that they are losing control in the South as well.

Groups such as the SCV have barricaded themselves against attacks behind the "heritage not hate" motto. But a new monument to Forrest suggests a symbolic middle finger gestured in the direction of those who are not only surprised by such an effort, but offended as well.

What do you think? Should there be a new monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest?


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mission Accomplished

I woke up yesterday morning and saw this tweet in my Twitter feed. It's times like these that I am reassured that Civil War blogging is making some sort of a difference.

Last summer, at a conference in Gettysburg, an attendee addressed a panel including myself, Kevin Levin, and Brooks Simpson, and asked if Civil War blogging was entertainment or the serious business of teaching history.

My response was (and always will be) that the two should not be separate strategies. Well, I do not think he was happy with my answer (hoping I would side with the latter). I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I intentionally attempt to draw people to Cosmic America with humor, entertainment, silly anecdotes or whatever I can think of. But that does no mean that I ignore historical issues, original research, and analysis. Some of the things I discuss are controversial and can stir emotions - but there is always room for levity.

I believe that historical inquiry is undergoing a paradigmatic shift of sorts. One component of that shift is the instantaneous transmission of thoughts and ideas - all the trappings of a carefully considered historical problem thought through to viable conclusions...and done in short spurts via social media. Like it or not, much of this is happening in a colloquial - perhaps even entertaining - format. History is going viral, my friends. Who knows...we may even have fun with it.

So thanks, Rebecca. I am certainly pleased that you and others like you have found a way to enjoy the study of history. And I am glad I could help.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Drunk History

Today I learned of the Internet sensation, Drunk History. The premise: a comedian, with an "understanding" of an historical event, offers a lesson while proceeding to get completely tanked.

In this episode, Jen Kirkman schools us on the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. By the second bottle of wine, the story gets....interesting.

I imagine that my painfully boring high school history class would have attracted a more attentive audience had the teacher knocked a few back before bell rang for 5th period.

But since that didn't happen to me or anyone else, and probably still does not - we historians may have to rely on these episodes to draw more to the discipline. You can enjoy the tale of Lincoln and Douglass by clicking HERE. Really, you should - it''s a story with an all-star cast that you won't want to miss.



Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Right to Land

What did freedom mean to former slaves in the Reconstruction South? A number of things come to mind. Freedom meant the stability of family, a marriage recognized by the state, and children that could not be sold. Freedom also meant the ownership of one's labor and the means though which to make way in the world.

A common misconception among southern whites, according to historian Eric Foner in his book Nothing But Freedom, was that freedom for blacks meant the escape from all labor. Black people understood slavery not as toil, but as unrequited toil, and freedom meant having a place whereby they could reap the fruits of their labor.

Freedmen then, based their claim to land on the notion of unrequited labor. Planters had accumulated their land illegitimately. As former slaves understood their contribution to the development of the American economy, they also claimed their right to ownership of the land they had worked to improve.

Freedman Bayley Wyat summed up his experiences and his justifications in 1868. The speech is written in dialect (transcribed from the original...dialect always makes me cringe a little) and protests the eviction of blacks from a Virginia contraband camp two years earlier

We has a right to the land where we are locates. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon, for that reason we have a divine right to the land...and den didn't we clear the land, and de crops ob corn, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything. And den didn't dem large cities in de North grow up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made? I say dey has grown rich, and my people is poor.

For Wyat, southern planters and northern industrialists are equally complicit in former slaves' precarious situation, and thus owe them payment for generations of uncompensated servitude. Of course we all know that most turned a deaf ear to these demands for restitution, and thus historians have noted a glaring failure of Reconstruction. One could then define emancipation as little more than the creation of a landless proletariat, free to do nothing but labor.

My question to you: is this too hard a judgment?