Did I Forget Someone?

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 7.57.45 AMGreetings!

Well, in short, the answer is no. But allow me to explain. When I was conducting research on the commemorative efforts of Civil War veterans for my dissertation, giving papers on the topic, and years later, revising the diss for publication as Across the Bloody Chasm, I ran up against a good many people who found it potentially problematic that I wrote only of white Civil War veterans. They questioned: did I overlook, dismiss, or find their commemorative efforts not worthy of analysis? Of course I did not.

Let me assure you I greatly value and hold in the highest esteem the work of black Civil War Union veterans. I believe that there is much one can offer concerning their commemorations by way of investigation. But though many admonished that readers and reviewers would take me to task for leaving black veterans out of my story, I decided, with deliberate intention, not to discuss their commemorative culture.

I will note two reasons for this decision:

First, two historians have recently published excellent studies on black veterans. Donald R. Shaffer’s After the Glory and Barbara A. Gannon’s The Won Cause are both magnificent works that focus on black veteran struggles after the war, having won a sense of manliness as soldiers, and black and white comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, the preeminent Union veterans’ organization.  While I contend that no book is the final word on anything, these two studies generally reflect my personal thoughts on black veterans (thoughts that resonate loudly in the archival record), and I do not feel (at least, not for now) that I could have added anything significant to build on what Shaffer and Gannon have already so elegantly accomplished.

Second, I was looking for the voice of the majority, in essence to learn if there was something crucial and overlooked that drove the general spirit of soldiers’ commemorations against a backdrop of national reconciliation in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. I believe it goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of the men who shouldered muskets in the Civil War were white. The Confederacy fielded  about o% (+/- .0001%) of their military age black men in combat roles, and the Union enlisted roughly 179,000 black fighting men to march into battle with the USCT and other black regiments – a shade short of 10% of the Union army. Combined, well over 3 million men served between 1861 and 1865. Clearly, black soldiers made up only a small fraction of the armies. Moving on, it made perfect sense that after the conflict black veterans would acknowledge slavery as the central cause of the war and celebrate emancipation as its consequence – no matter what anyone else said. Nothing surprising here.

My argument was with the predominating “reconciliationist premise” literature (David Blight’s work especially but also numerous others) that claimed white veterans put aside divisive issues in the name of an entirely benign and whitewashed reconciliation on southern terms.

With rare exception, they did not. In fact, many on both sides discussed with great vehemence war issues such as slavery and emancipation through any number of commemorative activities. And they went further than that, taking on highly volatile topics such as treason, tyranny, and the original intentions of the founders. Those who attended veterans’ gatherings or wrote narratives and recollections were bent on preserving memories, not whiting them out.

So it seems that white Civil War veterans – the majority of those who fought – did not dismiss war issues as readily as some scholars would have you think. They were perfectly willing to reconcile, but only on terms of their choosing – all the while acknowledging that the other side was profoundly wrong. As you might imagine, that did not work out so well. This is the story that I offer. You will have to read my book to see if I executed it successfully.

With compliments,


National Park Ranger Beth Parnicza on “Going Back”

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 10.16.41 AMGreetings!

I’ve just finished watching Beth Parnicza’s talk on Civil War veterans and their post-war battlefield excursions. The talk, which took place on February 7, 2015, is part of the Gettysburg National Military Park Winter Series. The whole collection is available to watch on the GNMP Youtube channel.

Considering that the primary focus of my research for the past decade or so has been Civil War veterans and what they had to say when they thought about and discussed the war later in life – and particularly what they said on the battlefields where they had once faced war’s grim certainties – I found this talk notably engaging. Ms. Parnicza does a magnificent job of discussing veterans’ vivid memories of battle: death, smell, and in particular,  ghosts. She notes with well-studied and informed accuracy the emotions on display – and indeed how many veterans returning to the places of carnage seemed nearly overwhelmed with grief when acknowledging the sacrifices of their fallen comrades. Most importantly, as she points out, they used these opportunities to say goodbye to those with whom they had fought alongside – and, as it turns out…against.

Parnicza’s talk centers on the battlefields of the Wilderness region of Virginia and looks almost entirely at veterans’ gatherings of the mixed variety – meaning, she discusses “reunions” where representatives from both Union and Confederate armies  commemorated the fields together. On these occasions, one in attendance would scarcely have heard mention of treason, tyranny, or accusatory statements concerning the perversions of the original intentions of the founding generation – and perhaps only the occasional nod to emancipation and progress. These gatherings were “love feasts” dedicated to reconciliation, where veterans made sure to reject bitterness and the divisive issues of war. Rather, they honored sacrifice, heroism, fortitude, and commitment.

At least for the veterans discussed in this lecture, Parnicza is right on target. Mixed gatherings rarely emphasized contention precisely because most thought it tawdry at best to verbally attack, criticize, or ridicule former enemies now that the questions of war had been settled by shot and shell – and especially since the former enemies in question were sitting in the speaker’s presence. After all, former Rebels  were hosting Union men on Virginia soil – and doing so quite graciously. To reopen wounds of war would have been rude, so to speak, for either side. Still, I believe that a comparison with other veteran events would have served this talk well – and in fact helped to illustrate the point that such mixed meetings around the Wilderness were exceptional – and thus worthy of especial discussion.

For example, veterans attending gatherings throughout the rest of the nation – the ones other than the rare “Blue-Gray” type – were far less inclined to put aside contentious war issues. In fact, remembering what inspired them to fight in the first place was most often the very point of veterans coming together in commemoration. And as they aged, their voices grew even stronger. Forgetting the war’s causes and consequences – combative as they might be –  was the farthest thing from veterans’ minds.

This aside, Parnicza’s talk  offers much – in ways that I have discounted over the years – concerning the subtleties of reconciliation in terms of mutual sacrifice. Take the time to watch this excellent presentation – posted below – and then let’s talk.

With compliments,


PS – B.P., should you happen to read this post, thanks for the book shout out 🙂 You have included me in good company.


Join the Klub!

FullSizeRenderWhoops! It looks like the good folks at Krispy Kreme  in Hull, East Yorkshire, England didn’t think this promo through. Unless of course they were hoping for a hooded, and perhaps cross-burning clientele. While the company has apologized for advertising the Krispy Kreme Klub – or rather KKK Wednesday – you might want to avoid the establishment on that day in February…just to be safe.

With compliments,


A Keith Harris History PSA – Watch Out for Pedestrians!

IMG_3404Greetings all!

Those of you who are connected with me on my personal Facebook page already know that a couple of days ago my wife, Coni and I were hit by a car while in a crosswalk in Hollywood. Coni broke her arm in two places and I sprained my wrist. We were both pretty banged up but otherwise, thankfully, came out of the whole incident relatively okay. Suffice it to say, things could have been a lot worse. And let me say for the record, Coni is a hardcore badass. She got hit way worse than me and laughed through (most of) the ordeal. I would like to express my gratitude to my neighbors for looking after us while the paramedics were on the way, LAFD station 27, the RNs, attending, and orthopedist at Cedars Sinai, the LAPD investigating officer, and the Uber lady who drove us home. You rule.

And let me take a moment to remind you all to please pay attention when behind the wheel. Don’t text, don’t fiddle around, and for the love of Jiminy Cricket, be mindful of pedestrians. Take it easy driving out there folks – the lives you save could be ours 🙂

With compliments,


What if…What if…What if?

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 8.13.40 AMImagine the possibilities…

Of course you know by now that the “what if” questions drive me nuts, particularly the well-worn: what if Stonewall had lived to fight at Gettysburg.

But I have to confess that I am really taking to these entirely anachronistic images popping up here and there featuring soldiers from one era pictured with soldiers/equipment from another. There is even a series going around with Star Wars gear paired with real images from WWII. It’s just plain fun.

Well I suppose the boys in gray would have made good use out of some mechanized armor. Ahhhh….what if…

With compliments,