Category Archives: Literature

I Disagree With Some of the Best Books Ever

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 9.28.20 AMA former student recently asked me to comment on David W. Blight’s  Race and Reunion. I said it was a great book…but one with which I disagree. And I talk about disagreeing with it all the time. Perhaps a little explanation is in order…

But first, I would like to say that this is an important work in the field of Civil War memory – maybe the most important (at least right now). It is beautifully written and about as captivating as a history book can be. I just think that Blight has missed his mark. Here is my thinking on what I term Blight’s (and others’) “reconciliation premise” – paraphrased from my book, Across the Bloody Chasm, on the subject of veterans, commemoration, and national reconciliation.

Blight, while curiously overlooking northern efforts to commemorate the fight to preserve the Union, examines how participants at events geared toward reconciliation, such as the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, ignored the principal issues leading to war and the Union war aim of emancipation. At these events, mentions of slavery or emancipation were conspicuously absent. Blight reasons, together with white supremacists, reconciliationists “locked arms” and “delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” He concludes, “Forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture [and] the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”

Scholars can and should agree that Civil War veterans from both North and South shared in their racist sensibilities; they can likewise condemn them for their actions. But while the participants were undoubtedly racist, emphasizing veterans’ reconciliatory impulses solely as efforts to commemorate a “white only” war runs the risk of obscuring veterans’ intentions. Did veterans calculatingly contribute to historical amnesia along racial lines in the name of reconciliation? There is relatively little evidence pointing to this conclusion. It is true that from the point of view of most veterans, reconciliation seemed the soundest course of action. Yet the memories that informed the terms of reconciliation suggest that Civil War veterans acquiesced to reaching across the bloody chasm (see what I did there?)  only so long as their former enemies accepted their respective arguments – a scenario that seldom transpired.

Even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the memories of slavery, emancipation, and the trials of freedmen coupled with other contentious issues such as treason and the right of secession loomed large for former soldiers from both North and South. In fact, questions concerning race functioned as a leitmotif throughout the reconciliation era. Whether veterans celebrated the demise of slavery and saw emancipation as a worthy component of their cause, or viewed slavery as an incident rather than a cause of the war, race and the plight of black Americans functioned as a central narrative in the battle to write the terms of reconciliation.

Evidence suggests (and I have examples to spare – just ask) that Blight’s efforts to illustrate the memory of the war as a “white only” “southern terms” affair miss the bull’s-eye by a Confederate mile. The terms of reconciliation were – and still are for that matter – undecided, hashed out, and fought over…on a national scale. Slavery, emancipation, and black people in general were central to this post-war conflict over memory. Neither Union nor Confederate veterans let the citizens of a reunited nation forget their positions on this volatile subject – a subject that has remained among the most divisive generations after the conflict. But as always – I suggest you read Race and Reunion and judge for yourself.

With compliments,

Keith

Cold Harbor to the Crater – Book Give Away!

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 12.43.40 PMHey – well the deed is done…as promised, Julio has picked a winner from all the Facebook shares and Twitter RTs.  Check it out the prize winning action!

This book, edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Caroline E. Janney features essays from yours truly as well as these great historians: Keith S. Bohannon, Stephen Cushman, Robert E. L. Krick, Kevin M. Levin, Kathryn Shively Meier, Gordon C. Rhea, and Joan Waugh.

If you were not the lucky winner – I suggest you click HERE and get your copy right away. You’ll be pleased I am certain.

Thanks for participating! And stay tuned…you never know what I am going to give away next.

With compliments,

Keith

Cold Harbor to the Crater

Battle_of_Cold_HarborGreetings all – I am very pleased to announce that the latest edition of the Military Campaigns of the Civil War Series, Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign, is available for preorder – due for release from UNC Press in September, 2015. I am exceedingly honored to have an essay in this volume, edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Caroline E. Janney. My focus is on Confederate soldiers and their prospects for victory in mid 1864. You might be surprised by what I have to say.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 8.20.30 AMBut what’s really great is that I am in exceptional company. Other contributors include: Keith S. Bohannon, Stephen Cushman, Robert E. L. Krick, Kevin M. Levin, Kathryn Shively Meier, Gordon C. Rhea, and Joan Waugh.

How’s that for a group of heavy hitters?

With compliments,

Keith

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,

Keith

* 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.

 

 

 

 

On the Books

158046-bestsellers-lrgGreetings all!

I have just been listening to historian Edward L. Ayers interview fellow blogger Kevin Levin on NPR’s Backstory  concerning his recent post on Civil War Memory. The topic: history bestsellers in 2014.

In the post, Kevin offers his observations on a few salient characteristics shared by the authors on the list. Among those enumerated, notable is that most of the authors are journalists – not academic historians.

Kevin’s reasons behind this? Well, for one, it’s because journalists tell an entertaining story (which implies that academics don’t…but more on that later). And ultimately, that is what the reading public wants: entertainment. But more importantly, these authors have much more far-ranging influence than your garden variety academic. They benefit from exposure on television, in the press, and they have a strong social media presence. With this I think Kevin is pretty much right on the money. Take it from me, I know a robust Internet presence helps sell books (see what I did there?). In a follow-up post, he counsels academics, and I would agree: if you want to keep up, you had better get to work.

Get to work indeed. Many (though certainly not all) academics are missing out on an enormous opportunity to engage with the general public precisely because they do not take advantage of the instantaneous and world-wide connections provided by social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Let’s take the journalists…I can assure you that they have things covered in the exposure department.

But popularity aside, are these journalist-author-personalities up to the challenge? I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.

Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.

So while Kevin might call for academics to get on board with the 21st century and reach out to a world of potential readers, I would add that journalists should up their game as well – perhaps hit the archives and the historiography a little harder. And as a side note or a story for another day, I would be thrilled if academic historians would not only reach out to but also write for a broader audience. To my friends in the hallowed halls – dial down the esoteric language. It sounds so…academic. You’ll just wind up writing a better story, and that’s a good thing.

As always, feel free to weigh in here.

With compliments,

Keith