The Never-Ending Question

map_union_states_in_1861_2Greetings all,

It’s a question one hears all the time: “could the South have won the war?” Indeed, the New York Times Opinionator blog ran a piece on this very question just days ago…the well-worn question was fielded by Civil War historian Terry L. Jones. (note: the South and the Confederacy are not necessarily the same thing – the NYT should know better. And so should Jones).

Jones travels the usual paths, citing issues of contingency and offering the conventional “if xxx then xxx but since xxx then xxx” explanations, ultimately concluding that “a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning.”

Well, perhaps – especially if one is drawing such conclusions with the advantage of hindsight safely tucked in one’s breast pocket.

But I propose that we are asking the wrong question.

Of course the Confederacy could have won the war. They had any number of advantages over their Federal opponents in 1861.* But they didn’t win for any number of reasons.

The Rebels thought they could win. In fact, they were certain of it. And I might add that they could not predict the future.

So let’s ask, reading history forward: why did the Confederacy lose (or rather, why did the Union win) the war? It’s a much more engaging question, which allows us to dispense with the what ifs.

With compliments,


* CSA advantages in 1861: vast territory that the United States had to conquer with a small army, thousands of miles of coastline and rivers that that the Union Navy had to blockade/control with few serviceable ships, the Confederates would be fighting with a home-field advantage  – they knew the territory and maneuvered among a friendly populace, they had 3 million or so slaves to do much of the work allowing nearly all military-age men to potentially serve in a military capacity, the Confederates didn’t need to do anything – no action by the US meant victory by default, the Confederate government was not hindered by annoying party politicking, and their executive – Jefferson Davis – had plenty of practical experience both as a soldier and a statesman. But of course, things have a way of changing….quite quickly. Let’s talk about those things.





American History Untucked

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 9.05.45 PMGreetings all!

A few days ago I had the great honor of recording a podcast segment for Professor David Silkenat’s American History Untucked. Dr. Silkenat is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and has been hosting this podcast for some time now.

We had a grand discussion about blogging, editing, academia, and some of my research projects. You can listen to my spot and those of many of my esteemed colleagues HERE.

With compliments,


Petersburg in The Birth of a Nation

IMG_3607If you are watching The Birth of a Nation and you are wondering why the battlefield near Petersburg does not look much like Virginia it’s because 1) you have a keen eye and 2) it’s Burbank, California.

I was hiking in the Hollywood Hills the other day and came up on a good vista of the area – now Forest Lawn Cemetery. Much of the scene pictured in the immediate foreground was the Petersburg “set,” which stretched for several miles. Griffith oversaw the scenes from a tower and shouted direction – big megaphone in hand: just as you might imagine a silent film director would look, sans the jodhpurs.

So we have Virginia with chaparral – odd to be sure. Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got!

The_Birth_of_a_Nation_war_sceneWith compliments,


GNMP Ranger Christopher Gwinn on What Gettysburg Meant to Its Veterans

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 7.45.26 PMGreetings all – I have really been enjoying the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Winter Lecture Series – all available to view free on charge on the GNMP Youtube channel. Yesterday I had a look at park ranger Christopher Gwinn’s discussion concerning what the Gettysburg battlefield meant to the veterans who had fought their. I believe that Gwinn did a wonderful job confronting what I long ago dubbed the “reconciliation premise,” or rather, scholars’ (read David Blight and others) persistent and influential notion that reconciliationists locked arms with white supremacists and crafted a white-washed Civil War memory on southern terms. The premise, as Gwinn notes, can certainly ring true – but only if viewed through a conspicuously narrow lens. For example, the 1913 and 1938 Blue-Gray reunions on the battlefield were unquestionably devoid of any divisive issues – especially those concerning slavery and emancipation. After all, these were national events honoring both sides and they were specifically meant to foster reconciliation. Rekindling prickly issues over the causes and consequences of the war was not on the agenda.

But Gwinn, quite correctly,  points out that the articulation of Civil War veterans’ memories  at Gettysburg  (especially Union veterans) was somewhat more complicated than the “forgive and forget” scenarios in ’13 and ’38. When not in the company of former enemies, which was the more typical variety of commemorative event, Federal veterans were quite clear on why they had fought, the righteousness of their victory, and the bitterness that continued to inform their memories late in life. They used the Gettysburg battlefield to express their views – however impassioned and however belligerent.

As such, Gettysburg battlefield ceremonies denote not only valor on the field of the so-called “turning point of the war” – as we learn from the inscriptions on the many monuments that cover the landscape, but also – if one reads the speeches delivered at monument dedications – a site of memory where veterans could rehash the more divisive issues.

Gwinn focuses almost entirely on Union veterans, which makes sense considering that Confederates are not well represented on the field. Yet he might have noted with more emphasis that former Rebels expressed their own versions of war memory elsewhere and in equally vehement fashion. Their war memories included issues such as tyranny and the perversion of the intentions of the founding generation – they did much the same thing as their Union counterparts on fields at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and in town squares across the South. In fact,  typical Gettysburg commemorative events reflected the kind of commemoration that took place on both sides of the Potomac – on battlefields, courthouse lawns, and veteran meeting halls. Recognition of this broader sense of veteran commemoration would have served to strengthen his argument about Gettysburg.  But this aside, Gwinn convincingly suggests, and I enthusiastically agree: veterans were willing to reconcile, but only on terms of their own writing. You might guess how all of this worked out.

Please watch the video below and add your two cents in the comments section. I am happy to keep the conversation going. And thanks to Mr. Gwinn for recommending my book, Across the Bloody Chasm. He couples it with Caroline E. Janney’s magnificent Remembering the Civil War, which looks at similar issues but casts a wider net  – and arrives at a few different conclusions. More on that later – I have a review of Carrie’s book in the works.

With compliments,


New for the Americanist Independent

FullSizeRenderGreetings all!

I think you will all enjoy the most recent additions to the Americanist Independent website – under the Music, Art, and Literature section. We are featuring the music of Dusty Elmer, a New Yorker who plays a mean clawhammer banjo, reminiscent of old-time Appalachia, and the artwork of Wendy Allen. Her execution of Lincoln portraiture captures the essence of the man. Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 9.45.22 AM

I think you will find, as I do, that both of these contributors add great value to the Americanist Independent site. And by the way, if you have not already figured it out, the scholarly journal is now published quarterly – so stay tuned for the next issue on April 1.

With compliments,