John Steinbeck and the Nineteenth Century

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.58.15 AMI adore John Steinbeck. I really do. His words, his works, they capture so very much. The human experience. The American experience. I have recently been reading East of Eden for the who knows how manyth time and I was once again taken by his distillation of the nineteenth century. The step toward verse – near poetic, but yet not. So cold and matter of fact. And I think he got it right.  I offer…

History was secreted in the glands of a million historians. we must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all.

Think back, recall our little nation fringing the oceans, torn with complexities, too big for its britches. Just got going when the British took us on again. We beat them, but it didn’t do us much good. What we had was a burned White House and ten thousand widows on the public pension list.

Then the soldiers went to Mexico and it was a kind of painful picnic. Nobody knows why you go to a picnic to be uncomfortable when it is so easy and pleasant to eat at home. The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was training for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

And then the arguments:

Can you keep a slave?

Well if you bought him in good faith, why not?

Next they’ll be saying a man can’t have a horse. Who is it who wants to take my property?

And there we were, like a man scratching at his own face and bleeding into his own beard.

Well, that was over and we got slowly up off the bloody ground and started westward.

There came boom and bust, bankruptcy, depression.

Great public thieves came along and picked the pockets of everyone who had a pocket.

To hell with that rotten century!

With compliments,


The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 8.10.34 AMNeed a distraction from reality? Troubled by things that actually took place? No problem. I present to you The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove….the “master” of alternate history.

I have a thing or two to say about the book, but before I do that, I thought I might offer my take on alternate history – or if you rather…”counterfactual” history. I see them as one and the same.

According to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First – for the basest of simpletons I suppose – we have the “beer and peanuts” counterfactual. These “what ifs,” such as “what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg” generally make their appearance at various “buff” gatherings. Second, we have “counterfactual theory.” This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what…ummmm….didn’t.

Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite “what ifs” of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know – ever…no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.

Now that that is off my chest – on to Guns. The premise of this book: South African white supremacists travel back in time to supply the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s. Hi-jinx ensue. SPOILER ALERT: The Confederacy wins.

I have to admit that I was drawn in by Guns. Despite that fact that I generally cringe at the thought of counterfactual/alternate history, I thought this book was entertaining. Whatever…guilty as charged. I mean really…who would not be captivated by a heated presidential contest between rival factions supporting Nathan Bedford Forrest, the white supremacy candidate, and Robert E. Lee under the banner of…what…abolition??

You heard it right, friends. Old Marse Robert decides that emancipation is the ticket. As the story goes, relations with the South Africans quickly unravel once Lee and others get their hands on a few Civil War history books from the future that would have been. I won’t give away what happens next – you’ll want to read it for yourself. Let’s just say that apart from a few hotheads, the good citizens of the CSA come to their senses regarding the slavery issue.

I have to hand it to Turtledove. Instead of pandering to the – shall we say – extremist contingent of the modern neo-Confederacy, he deals candidly with the slavery issue. He writes of the complexities of secession and the Confederate war for independence with the underlying acknowledgment that slavery – in the words of Abraham Lincoln – had “something to do with the war.” Indeed, many of the central characters frankly admit that they had fought to maintain the institution.

But…I do see this book as part of an intriguing movement. Since the end of the war, there have been those who have worked tirelessly to distance iconic Confederate heroes from the fight to preserve slavery. Guns, in my estimation, is for the most part a continuation of that effort. Both Robert E. Lee and the main Confederate soldier character (Nate Caudell) change their tunes regarding slavery and begin to think in earnest about equality, the human condition, and inherent rights of all. This characterization undoubtedly pleases modern “heritage not hate” supporters of the Confederacy, who see the war as an effort to secure rights in the face of an oppressive government. These folks generally assume that slavery was already a dying institution in 1860, and would have passed into history on its own. The alternate Lee and Caudell march right in step with this scenario – and even accelerate the process.

Whether or not I am on board with Turtledove’s portrayal of a victorious Confederacy is of little consequence. You will have to judge for yourself – I will not quibble with counterfactuals/alternates because such arguments are ultimately of little value. And after all – this is not a book of history. But it is an entertaining look at a fictional country, and Turtledove uses actual people, places, and events to spin his yarn. I say what the hell – give The Guns of the South a go. It might make you mad, it might make you laugh, and who knows….it might even encourage you to have a look at the history of the Civil War – the real one, that is.

With compliments,


What You Might Find Inside a Used Book

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Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 8.22.42 AMThis is the inscription on the frontpiece of my personal copy of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Report of the Pennsylvania Commission (Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, c1913). Or what I simply call the “Pennsylvania Report.” I bought the book in Gettysburg back in 2001 from a small book store specializing in battle ephemera. I wish I could remember the name of the store…or where exactly it is (or was) located. Anyway…it’s pretty cool when you can trace a book’s history. I did a little digging and found a great image of Francis H. Hoy – who, as stated, served as the Senior Vice Commander of the Department of Pennsylvania, GAR in 1915. In 1919, as I discovered, he served as the department’s Chief of Staff.

But enough about Hoy. The book is full of photographs from the 1913 Blue-Gray reunion at Gettysburg, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle. A significant number of the images clearly depict a reconciliatory spirit…and these images have dominated much of the scholarly analysis of the reconciliation movement. I take issue with some of these ideas and underscore a number of the most “forgive and forget” images in the August issue of The Americanist Independent. It would it worth it to you to check it out.

With compliments,



What Are Your Thoughts on the Colorization Thing?

article-0-188B625000000578-549_964x1020I’ll admit, some of these pictures look eerily legit. So kudos to the artist(s) who manage to make old familiar black and white historical photos look like modern full-color images.

I have been seeing these pop up all over the Internet. And I have to say that at first I was intrigued, particularly by the Civil War images.

But once I thought about it a little, I began to wonder how any of this was all that different from tampering with historical evidence. What may seem a harmless and interesting activity could just as easily add up to falsifying documents. Indeed – information in colorized images – no matter how seemingly accurate, might very well mislead or misinform analysis.

Oh sure, leaves are green. But are they always? Not in Virginia in the fall. The wear of an individual’s military uniform or civilian clothing (dirt,  fading, etc) can tell us quite a bit about that person’s life experience. A colorization artist could thus very easily – if unintentionally – create dubious information regarding time, place, social station, or any number of things.

I’ve included a few images here from this site for your consideration. What do you think?








With compliments,


The Americanist Independent – August Issue!

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 7.22.59 PMIt has hit the web! This month, there is something of an “in the aftermath of Civil War” theme going on – I will work in the thematic approach from time to time when things seem to align just so. This is one such issue. So if you are interested (even a little) in America’s greatest conflict – this issue is for you.

Our feature articles:

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Independent historian Heath Hardage Lee discusses her work on Winnie Davis, youngest child of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and famed “Daughter of the Confederacy.” She discusses her significance on terms of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War as well as her role in the process of reconciliation.  There are some multi-media components here too including both radio and video interviews embedded into the journal.






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North Carolina State archivist Aaron Cusick walks us through the Confederate pension process and describes how these pension records are digitized and made available to the public. It’s pretty fascinating stuff – and it underscores how useful the records are to historians and genealogists alike.






There are two new features in this month’s issue. First, the Conference Review section. For August, participants Evan Clapsaddle, Al Mackey, Ray Ortensie, and Marilyn Jess review their experiences at the Civil War Institute Conference at Gettysburg College. Hint: all four liked it. Second, I’ve including something I call “Harristorian Archives,” where I take a look at the significance of a historical document or old book in my private library. This month I look at the images included in: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Report of the Pennsylvania Commission (Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, c1913). These images are key to understanding the “Southern Terms” argument concerning reconciliation.

So, of course you will want to subscribe, right?